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.

There's a growing need for physician-scientists who can see from both sides of the table. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Physician-scientists are a group of specialized researchers at the intersection of medicine and technology. Earning both medical degrees and Ph.D.s, they offer a perspective beyond the scope of clinical practice.

Three such researchers discussed how they make the connections between discovery and patient care.

Why a dual education matters

Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston and M.D. Anderson professor of biology and biochemistry, knows exactly what the clinical demands are.

"I can see from the M.D. perspective, but at the same time I have a Ph.D. — I know how to design research properly," he says. "In the clinic, you're faced with reality that a patient is struggling but you don't have the tools to treat those patients. If you engage in research you can create a tool."

Zhang says clinicians know the need but may struggle to design a solution. A Ph.D., on the other hand, may only know basic research.

Renowned hormone researcher Jan-Åke Gustafsson, Robert A. Welch professor of biology and biochemistry and founding director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, agrees.

"The dual education makes it possible for you to see which diseases are in need of more research, drugs and so on," he says.

Physician-scientists are the driving force behind many advances of modern medicine.

"The way I look at it is, practicing medicine is relatively easy but coming up with the next diagnostic device or the next treatment for a disease is way more difficult, way more challenging," says Chandra Mohan, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Endowed professor of biomedical engineering at UH.

"You see patients with certain diseases, and you know there's a dire need for better diagnostics, earlier treatment, earlier diagnosis with fewer side effects," he says.

While researchers spend time primarily in the laboratory and clinical practitioners interact with patients, they both want to make an impact.

"We have made some discoveries which have led to the development of new drugs and better understanding of certain diseases," says Gustafsson. "There's a great satisfaction that it may help people to get healthy."

Traditional research brings value to a university

The synergy of this dual education makes these investigators valuable not only to academia, but also to medical science.

"I can't imagine doing translational research without medical training," Zhang says. "If you have this part without the other, you don't know where to go. With medical training, you know exactly which direction to go."

Mohan echos that assessment.

"When you start doing research there are so many questions you can answer," he says. "Sometimes there are questions which are just too basic. They're too far removed from how it will impact a patient's life. So what are the most important questions? I think questions that really make a difference in the patient's life are the most important."

Zhang notes that the National Institutes of Health has switched its funding philosophy — once focused on basic science, it now is more interested in translational research, with a direct relationship to patient health.

As physician-scientists, these "translators" of medical research are able to bridge the chasm.

Amr Elnashai, vice president/vice chancellor of research and technology transfer at UH, says physician-scientists play an important role.

"The increasing importance of deploying technology in medicine renders it essential for a progressive research university to hire medical Ph.D. holders who are in an ideal position to bridge the gap between engineering and science on the one hand, and the broad field of medicine on the other," he says.

Research groups that bring both fields together not only have a much higher probability of impacting lives by adopting the latest technology in medical applications, he adds, but they also give interdisciplinary teams greater access to specific funding pursue such solutions.

In that sense, says Elnashai, medical Ph.D. researchers play an important part of the future research university.

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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.