Trolling for Technologies (and a good beer)

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). 

6 thoughts on “Trolling for Technologies (and a good beer)

  1. Great post! How do prospective investors fit into this calculus, Micah? Should you socialize with them to get on their radar and establish your area of interest or wait until you are more buttoned up? Maybe topic for future post?

  2. The in-development Venture Cafe ( aims to be this outside of school "walls" in Boston, focusing on Kendall.Come visit the alpha prototype Thursdays from 3-8 pm at One Broadway, 11th floor!

  3. Excellent post Micah! I’ve been running Columbia’s Venture Lab for almost five years, have been involved in 50+ spin-offs and can confirm much of what you’ve outlined above. One thing I’ll add is that I believe student entrepreneurship to be a looming tidal wave… and a much easier demographic to grab beers with!

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more when you said, "University technologies are often solutions looking for problems to solve, and this is a hard way to start a business". Your post made me realize that when I was in school, I should have be cognizant of the value professors can provide to a start-up. Great article!

  5. Great post Micha. I recently joined NYU to lead a new venture fund here, and couldn’t agree with you more. The ultimate success of the fund will be driven by our ability to pair great business entrepreneurs with the brilliant researchers and technologists at NYU. Please come troll at NYU. Would love to share some entrepreneurial fuel and see what happens.

  6. With Brontes (where I ran eng), it really started at idea-level and developed into a product grade technology, with many accompanying technologies needed to actually make it valuable. Very risky and very satisfying. My previous effort (Zmed, also running eng) licensed a workflow and a tested technology approach from U of FL. It’s less sexy, but, you get to market a lot faster. One of the licensed U of FL patents, one on workflow, stood the test of the product development cycle and was valuable to the company, even towards the end of the product’s life.

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