Houston Voices

The Valley of Death: How universities can help startups survive

Universities and startups have different goals, but that doesn't mean that educational institutions can't help new companies through the valley of death that is entering the marketplace. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

When looking out over the commercialization landscape, the vast space a product has to travel from discovery to the marketplace appears to be growing. For many startup companies, this so-called "valley of death" means the end of the road. Without support, resources and, most importantly, cash, many startups will shut down.

Universities are becoming epicenters for startup activity. In many ways, they are perfectly positioned to support commercialization, with a pro-research environment, lab facilities, faculty expertise, human resources, and tech transfer operations.

But there's one problem.

"Universities and industry are like two icebergs moving in different directions," says Montgomery Alger, professor of chemical engineering and director of the Institute for Natural Gas Research at Pennsylvania State University. "Companies need to make quarterly profits quickly through new products and services, and the academic business model is not set up to support that need."

The question then becomes: how can universities shift their approach to bridge the gap from idea to market?

Spark innovation on campus

Universities may need to rethink a few things when it comes to their innovation ecosystems.

"Universities must play a key role in the commercialization process because so many ideas start there," says Walter Ulrich, longtime technology management consultant and former chief executive officer of the Houston Technology Center, previously one of Houston's most prominent accelerators and incubators. "Investors and inventors go to where there's a critical mass of opportunity, so universities need to step up their game."

Supporting commercialization gives universities a chance to be even more relevant when it comes to local economic development. Changing the institutional culture, however, may be necessary if universities want to become a true bridge across the valley of death.

Alger, who spent part of his early career working for GE Global Research before transitioning to academia, argues that this can be done by creating multidisciplinary teams of researchers across the university to help industry bring ideas to the market — a foundational part of the bridge.

Another way to spark innovation is to boost technology transfer or industry alliance offices, according to Susan Jenkins, managing director of the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Hiring an intellectual property manager to work specifically with academic research institutes can go a long way in supporting an innovation environment.

"When it comes to innovation, universities need to be open to new ideas," says Jenkins. "They need to be able to shift quickly to the next best thing, whatever is hot at the moment. That's how the market works."

Disrupt the academic business model

Universities are designed to support educational throughput. Most are not set up to support commercialization activities.

"Universities are stuck in a rut," says Alger. "There has to be a conscious decision to make the university function like a business to support business."

That means putting the right resources in place to fix the many pain points companies may experience. Long response times, extensive paperwork processes and the lack of system wide policies governing university-corporate relationships can often lead startups and industry partners to look elsewhere for solutions.

"Just like scientists need to be innovative, the administration needs to be innovative," says Jenkins. "If you want to be in the race, you have to be ready to be flexible and adapt."

Another way to disrupt the academic business model is to consider commercialization as part of the promotion and tenure process.

"If universities are serious about advancing technology entrepreneurship, they must recognize faculty who drive commercialization," says Ulrich.

Alger agrees. "There has to be some kind of incentive structure established for the research program when it comes to technology transfer."

Six ways to get serious about startups

According to Ulrich, who has launched hundreds of successful startups throughout his career, startups need cash — and lots of it. Early licensing fees, short-term payouts, competitive prices for rent, and other services charged by the universities could end up keeping startups from success.

Ulrich says "Cash is king," noting that an increased demand for early-stage capital has widened the valley of death.

There are a few things universities can do to support early-stage startups:

1. Invest in long-term payouts.
Most venture firms expect returns in 7 to 10 years. By establishing longer-term payouts, more cash will stay in the hands of the entrepreneur.

2. Consider equity for returns.
Universities can negotiate equity, possibly even in the leasing of space.

3. License more broadly.
Diversifying provides more pathways for inventors to find the right fit for licensing their product.

4. Provide resources as investment.
Explore resources such as coursework credits for startups looking to expand their knowledge base.

5. Establish seed funding.
Entrepreneurs can use even the smallest amounts of cash. Not having to give it back is even better.

6. Create a university-focused angel network.
With broad alumni and donor bases, universities can more readily tap into its business community to build a network of investors.

Incorporating different streams of funding could be very important, says Jenkins, who worked with a foundation to establish entrepreneurial fellowship program at UC-Berkeley.

It's a dimension, however, that some campuses may not be set up to deal with yet.

"Product development within the academic research environment will take a focused investment," says Alger. "Universities just need to give the right attention and priority to it."

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

Lindsay Lewis is the director of strategic research communications at UH.

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Building Houston

 
 

Common Desk, which has locations across Houston, has been acquired — and other innovation news. Rendering courtesy of Common Desk

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

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