Houston Voices

Houston, we have liftoff: Preparing your startup for launch

What you need to know before your startup takes off. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Everyone wants to know how to build a startup. Venture capital, hiring employees, marketing, all happen once you're in the process of actually launching your startup. But nobody ever talks about what needs to happen before you start a startup. What do you have to do to position yourself to be ready to even think about launching your company?

"There is this attitude among universities that it's only a matter of time before you generate massive revenue from your newly developed tech. Fiction. It's fiction. You have to be realistic about what to expect," warns Shay Curran, professor of physics, associate director of the UH Advanced Manufacturing Institute, and CEO and chairman of Integricote, Inc. Shay spoke in front of an engaged audience at the Startup Pains event at the Technology Bridge in early March.



Integricote is one of 28 startups that have launched at the University of Houston over the last decade. This startup is a nanotechnology company that has developed its own brand of reactive penetrating sealers called CaraPro, a non-film-forming sealer that protects wood, stone, and concrete from water damage.

"Integricote didn't just pop up overnight and it certainly didn't start pumping money into my wallet right away. It took a lot of time, patience and sweat just to get to a point where we were ready to even launch the startup," Curran says.

Discovering your tech

Before you even dream about a startup, you have to have something to sell. For Google it was PageRank technology. For Chuck Hull it was the 3D printer. For Integricote it was CaraPro. For Tinder it was love. Okay, maybe not love. Tinder did have an innovative, game changing swipe feature that spawned a generation of dating apps emulating it. The point is, every tech startup starts with the discovery of innovative technology.

"Whenever you ask how long it takes to commercialize your technology, you usually get the same answer. Five years. Sounds great. After a few years you'll commercialize your sci-fi tech and be loaded. That's just not true. Even Google took six years!" Curran tells the audience at the Startup Pains event.

Build your IP profile

The next step on the road to launching your startup is building an IP portfolio. There's a lot more to building your IP portfolio than merely protecting your flux capacitor, or whatever your technology is. A solid IP strategy will protect any artwork, branding, literature, software, or any other aspect of your technology that may qualify for protection by trademark, patent, or copyright.

Your job is to identify at an early stage which parts of your technology can be protected. This is a lengthy process because each kind of IP, whether it be patent, copyright, trade secret, or trademark, has its own unique protocol that will protect them from pirating.

Failure to protect all relevant aspects of your technology before you launch could lead to having to protect it defensively later. That's never a good thing. It is a costly, messy ordeal that involves myriad attorneys and a lot of time away from focusing on your company.

"If you build a single patent, you open the pathway for others to see how you did something, and they tend to go around you. The singular patent is almost dead. It will take a family of patents to cover all your bases and protect your technology in all its aspects," Curran says.

Don't hate — validate

So, you've got this great piece of tech and you have an IP portfolio that protects your technology like a junkyard dog. Sure, it's taken you years to get to this point. It's taken a lot of time, perspiration, mistakes, stress, and Advil, but you're here. It's time to validate your startup idea now.

Validation is essentially proof that your product is something people will pay for. No matter how game-changing your tech is, you won't be making money if people aren't going to pay for it. You could have created a piece of technology that rivals Robin Williams's flubber, it's all for naught if you don't have proof that your tech solves a problem, is something people want, and is something they will actually spend money on.

"First, you'll need to find a problem that's worth solving to commercialize your technology," Curran says. "For Integricote, we found that our product could be used by companies to save money on annual cleaning and renovation expenses, since CaraPro keeps their walls, signs, and structures free of water damage and stains for long periods of time throughout the year. There was no need for them to continue to pay for cleaning multiple times a year."

All systems go

It's time.

You've gone through all of the painstaking, hot coal steps just to get to this point. Pat yourself on the back with that robotic arm you just developed in your lab.

You've discovered highly innovative technology, you've taken the necessary steps to protect it as much as possible, and you've proven that it's marketable and something people will throw their wallets at. It took years. You're almost burnt out. You've pulled your hair out so much people mistake you for Walter White.

What now?

Now, you get to do it all over again.

"Anybody who tells you this is an easy process is either lying or highly uninformed. There will be no sugarcoating here. All of the steps involved in launching and running a company take a long time, and if you're not willing to commit and work hard, there's no point in wasting your own time," says Curran as he wrapped up the Startup Pains event.

Now that you've positioned yourself for launching your startup, it's time to, you know, launch your startup. All you did was complete the road to getting you on the road to bringing your tech to market. Now, you'll get to experience a whole other set of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, frustrating mistakes, and demoralizing setbacks.

Don't worry. The Big Idea's Startup Experience section will produce more pieces to help guide you with the help of established entrepreneurs from UH's Technology Bridge who've been there and done that.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Public universities can be negatively affected during a government shutdown — especially within its research department. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

As the partial government shutdown loomed, academic institutions explored ways this might affect their research operations. Although we expect delays in processing proposals and award payouts, the impact on the institution may have been much less than expected. Consequently, most of the impact occurred at the individual principal investigator, or PI, level. That is where research that required federal resources came to a halt.

This is also the case for researchers at the Borders, Trade, and Immigration (BTI) Institute at the University of Houston. As a result of the shutdown, they were unable to start any new projects. Sadly, the government furloughed their program manager at the Department of Defense- Science and Technology Office of University Programs.

Education initiatives and multiple other research projects pending review were stuck along the "assembly line," as approvals did not happen during the month of January.

Consequently, BTI is a granted institution. Current projects were able to continue with slight delay due to the requirement to have meetings with the DHS representatives for their projects.

This scenario echoed across the research enterprise, as other researchers found themselves in similar situations.

Business as somewhat usual

Moreover, Nicholas Bond, climatologist and associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, felt the pinch of the shutdown and chronicled his experiences of how it impacted his research on climate and oceanography of the North Pacific.

Academic institutions across the country became burdened with the task of assuming unexpected financial responsibilities. In mid-January, the lapse in governmental funding forced The Ohio State University to temporarily cover the costs of unbilled expenditures to the tune of about $3 million. Harvard University continued to pay stipends for fellowships. They did this despite the fact that the shutdown included the federal funding agency.

Many faculty members, including our own, were able to continue working on their projects with the expectation of administrative delays. No new funding opportunities were issued, panel reviews were postponed and no new grants or no-cost extensions were awarded. For the most part, it was business as (somewhat) usual.

The big picture

It may be safe to say that the partial shutdown acted more as an inconvenience to the research enterprise than anything. Which is great news! Especially for the University of Houston, who has recently ignited the campus with the announcement of the 50-in-5 initiative. This ambitious program will increase the research and scholarly output by 50 percent over the next five years.

While this article focuses on the inconvenience of administrative delays, it's critical not to skim the surface. It may seem minute when compared to recipients of public assistance fearing not receiving benefits, but short-term implications are likely.

Keep in mind that most often, grants are not awarded by a single payment from the agency. Timelines are established between agencies and the institutions, and funds are released accordingly. Because of this, it's likely that research programs and educational initiatives across the academic research enterprise will not receive their funds on schedule.

What the future holds

Imagine, if you will, a conveyor belt. A system designed to allow items to move through a process with maximum efficiency. Because of the partial shutdown, research proposals that were in queue for review or funding experienced interruption along the conveyor belt.

Once disruptions to processes within federal agencies happen, it becomes inevitable that there will be delays further down the line.

Claudia Neuhauser, associate vice chancellor/vice president for Research and Technology Transfer for the UH System, warns of the "ripple effect" of the downstream delays and the potential impact on expenditures. We'll have to wait until the end of the year when annual reports are prepared for answers.

For now, it's a question of what the aftereffect will be.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Nitiya Spearman is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.