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.

Family firms aren't investing in research and development — but why? Getty Images

Family firms are publicly traded companies in which family members own at least 20 percent of the voting stock, and at least two board members belong to the family. For obvious reasons, the central principals in these firms tend to have a longer view than principals in non-family firms. Yet family firms invest less in research and development (R&D) in technology firms than their non-family counterparts. Since investments in R&D are stakes in the future, why this disparity?

Robert E. Hoskisson, a management professor at Rice Business, joined several colleagues to answer this question. Refining a sociological theory called the behavioral agency model (BAM), the researchers defined family-firm decisions as "mixed gambles" — that is, decisions that could result in either gains or losses.

Because success in high technology relies so much on innovation, it's especially puzzling when such a family owned business underinvests in R&D. So Hoskisson and his colleagues focused on the paradox of family firms in high tech.

According to previous research, family owners weigh both economic and non-economic factors when making business decisions. Hoskisson and his team labeled these non-economic factors socioemotional wealth (SEW). SEW can include family prestige through identifying with and controlling a business, emotional attachment to the firm or the legacy of a multigenerational link to the firm.

That intangible wealth (SEW) explained some of the families' R&D choices. While investment in R&D may lower future financial risk, it can threaten other resources the family holds dear. Expanded R&D spending, for instance, is linked with competitiveness. At the same time, it is associated with less family control. That's because to invest more in R&D, businesses typically need more external capital and expertise. So when a family firm underinvests in R&D, it may in fact be protecting its socioemotional wealth.

To further understand these dynamics, the researchers looked at three factors that they expected would raise families' R&D spending to levels more like non-family counterparts.

The first factor was corporate governance. As predicted, the researchers found that family firms with a higher percentage of institutional investors invested in R&D at levels more like those of non-family firms. The institutional investors naturally prioritized economic benefits far more than the founding family's legacy wealth (SEW).

The researchers also analyzed corporate strategy. Family firms, they found, invested more in R&D when it might be applied to related products or markets. Even families bent on preserving non-economic wealth could be lured by a big economic payoff, and related business are easier to control because they are closer to the family legacy business expertise.

Finally, Hoskisson and his colleagues looked at performance. When a family firm's performance lagged behind that of competitors, they reasoned, the owners would spend more on R&D. A higher percentage of institutional investors, the team theorized, would magnify this effect. Interestingly, the primary data (from 2004 to 2009) failed to support this hypothesis, while an alternative data set (from 1994 to 2002) confirmed it.

Further research, the investigators wrote, could shed useful light on this puzzle. They also encouraged study of how family firms conduct mergers and acquisitions. After all, while families can seem inscrutable from the outside, most run on some kind of economic system. The currency just includes more than money.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.