Houston Voices

Startup funding: Know the bucks behind the business

A startup without funding is just a great idea. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

A Cadillac with an empty gas tank is just a really nice, really expensive decoration for your driveway.

Change my mind.

A startup company without funding, is just a really great idea. A dream. Just like a car without gas will never get out on the road, a startup without funding will never get its product out on the market.

"There are opportunities for startup funding out there, your job is to find them and take advantage," says Daniel Weisfeld, CEO and founder of Resthetics, a blossoming startup that takes waste anesthetics and converts them into safe, renewable resources.

Mohamed Hashim, Resthetics co-founder and chemist, chimes in, "You have to do your homework. It's a slow process and hard work, but it'll be rewarding once the money comes in."

Putting the fun in startup funding

According to Weisfeld and Hashim, Resthetics joined the Texas A&M New Venture Competition and won admittance to the Texas Medical Center Accelerator, in addition to funding. In fact, their company is backed by the Texas Medical Center to date.

Business plan competitions give hopeful entrepreneurs the chance to vie for funding of their technology's development. They also give young entrepreneurs real-world experience and a chance to refine their business plans. Business plan competitions offer entrepreneurs a better understanding of what it's like to get a new venture off the ground and helps them learn to commercialize their technology.

You can browse a few business plan competitions here, including a Houston-based one.

Angel networks

While on the surface, an angel network may seem like a religious TV station, it's actually something a little more beneficial to your search for funding. Angel networks are composed of angel investors, i.e., people who invest their own funds into the beginning stages of a startup, with the hope of seeing a big return on their investment later on. Angel investors who invest in startups that end up failing will lose their money. It's a big risk.

They are called "angel" investors because these individuals give their own money to support startups, unlike venture capitalists who use funds pooled together from a group of investors.

Weisfeld suggests that, "Even if you don't think that your company fits someone's investment criteria, you should still reach out to them. Always ask. An investor might like you or your tech enough that they'll make an exception, or they may even recommend you to someone they know who is willing to invest."

Fun fact: In the early part of the 20th century, wealthy business owners gave their own money to support stage plays, so the term "angel investor" was born from Broadway.

You can find local angel investors in Houston here.

Non-dilutive funding sources

Often times, a startup will garner funding but will have to give up partial ownership of their company in return. This is not the case with non-dilutive funding sources. One example of non-dilutive funding is a bank loan. Sure, you'll have to pay a monthly interest rate, but you'll also get to keep absolute ownership of your startup.

Another example of a non-dilutive funding source is revenue sharing. Revenue sharing places more emphasis on a company's growth rather than its equity (your assets vs. your debts). This is important because it is congruent with the interests of entities who provide non-dilutive funding. Funding entities are more concerned with how sustainable your startup is projected to be rather than how much it is worth. This makes non-dilutive funding one of the best avenues through which to receive monetary sponsorship

Accelerators

Startup accelerators support startups as they are, well, starting up. Focused on the early stages of companies, accelerators offer startup funding, mentorship, connections in the industry, and education. Resthetics, a finalist for the 2018 MassChallenge accelerator in Austin, was able to expand its young company thanks in part to the connections made at the MassChallenge accelerator. Weisfeld and Hashim gained access to global mentor networks through the MassChallenge accelerator. Mentors helped them with manufacturing, quality management systems, and guided them as they developed Resthetics.

One of the primary differences between accelerators and business plan competitions is that accelerators offer intensive training and rigorous mentoring to push entrepreneurs to learn the ins and outs of running a business in the span of a few months. It's a hands-on crash course in business, and not for the weak at heart.

Brave souls can find Texas accelerators here.

Bang for your buck

So you've finally received the funding you need for your startup. Now what?

As a kid, my old man never let a teachable moment pass him by. After I spent ten bucks on a single Pog, my dad's new mission in life was to teach me the value of a dollar.

This lesson becomes all the more important after you finally receive funding for your startup. Weisfeld stresses the importance of budgeting after funding is acquired.

"What's the furthest you can go with the smallest amount of money?" asks Weisfeld.

Weisfeld opines that while you must be comfortable spending money, you also have to be confident with your budgeting strategy so that you spend each dollar as efficiently as possible as you take your product to market. After all, what funder is going to want to invest in someone who is wasteful with money?

Whether it's negotiating with vendors, outsourcing, cutting costs, or using independent contractors, it is incontrovertible that financial efficiency should be your next goal after you've finally acquired your startup funding. As Weisfeld proclaims, "Every dollar you spend should in turn create the same amount of value to the company."

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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.

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.