I was inspired to write this post by Sunday’s New York Times article entitled “The Idea Incubator Goes to Campus” which discusses how academic institutions are increasingly active in supporting commercialization of early technologies, and in some cases, funding them. It was rather humbling to see the story of Brontes Technologies featured in the article. It led me to think about how the entrepreneur should view academia.
University research as a catalyst
From my experience spinning out a technology from a lab, I’ve found that university projects are great catalysts for start-ups. They often bring highly competent people together who share a common interest and years of research in a particular area. There are typically one or more star innovators that are eager to give their invention “wings” but have yet to find the right collaborators. That said, the distance from lab bench to commercial product is generally underestimated. A marriage between commercial folks and a couple of key academics is ideal.
One particularly satisfying ingredient that most universities bring is a college town with an inspirational watering hole. Whether it’s Shay’s in Harvard Sq, the Muddy near MIT, the Royal Palms in Ithaca, don’t underestimate the value of cheap beer as entrepreneurial fuel (and good team building).
Patent Portfolios, Professors and Projects
The university spin-out often comes with some amount of IP which can be licensed from the university. Given that the entrepreneurial path is rarely linear, the patents often end up moot in the long term. In the short term, however, they provide a perceived stake in the ground to would-be competitors and the early claim of “patent pending technology.”
Professors also play a key role in spin-outs. Aside from being idea generators, they help provide validation to would-be investors and to the scientific community. Instant credibility goes to the tenured faculty member vs. a student with only a bachelor’s or master’s.
One thing I’ve found extremely valuable is to leverage the “entrepreneurial free pass” that comes along with working on a university spin-out. When approaching industry experts, one of the best ways to get time with someone is to preface the conversation with “I’m working on a university project…” This is far less threatening to company execs.
Troll the university for the next big one?
My conclusion is that it’s a poor use of time to troll universities (even MIT and Harvard) blindly looking for innovations. University technologies are often solutions looking for problems to solve, and this is a hard way to start a business.
I have found most researchers accessible and great sounding boards. I now first identify interesting markets and problems and then seek out experts in academia to assess the viability of solutions. As I meet really impressive academics, I file their names in my brain as potential future hires (and drinking pals).