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.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."