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University of Houston: Tips for building an innovative team

You've heard the adage that "teamwork makes the dream work," but how do you make that dream team a reality? Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

"Teamwork makes the dreams work". The well-known phrase has been overused as a company motto. Yet, it remains true and always will.

Haven't heard it? Maybe you've heard, "If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself," a quote by Henry Ford. Or maybe, "differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open," which was said by Albus Dumbledore in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" by J.K. Rowling.

Regardless of who said them, all these quotes emphasize the importance of teamwork and working towards a common goal. Several business owners in academia have also attested to this fact.

The co-founders of Advanced Codex Solutions offer some advice to help faculty entrepreneurs build an innovation team.

The key to success

Tarun Wadhawan, Ph.D., a University of Houston alum, team lead at Schlumberger and co-founder of Advance Codex Solutions, said that the key to success is to build the right "tribe" around you. He mentioned that, in prior business endeavors, he failed to make a team that could see his vision, which made that vision hard to accomplish.

"My last company included a couple of extremely talented students who were able to develop business plans and win national competitions. However, the company failed because other members had different aspirations and priorities," said George Zouridakis, Ph.D., the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Technology at UH and co-founder of Advanced Codex Solutions.

Even if a majority of the team is talented and dedicated to the vision, the company only succeeds if the entire innovation team is on the same page.

A strong innovation team is the first step to a startup's success. In his "9 Traits The Most Successful Innovation Teams Have In Common" blog, JC Grubbs, founder of Tandem, said, "an innovation team's primary objective is to pioneer something new at a company—a product, a process, a pivot, etc. The team assembles and examines existing products and/or systems, and by leveraging their diverse knowledge and skillsets, ideates and executes improvements."

It takes a village

Not only does it take your immediate team for a company to be successful, it also takes resources outside of the company. Resources like: education, training and support from valuable programs. Let's call this the "extended team."

Your extended innovation team also needs to share your values and understand your vision in order to help the company move forward. The wrong resource won't help you and will waste your time.

Courtney Queen, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Texas Tech University in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and co-founder of Advanced Codex Solutions, referred to the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps as one valuable program.

"Other agencies have similar programs, but the exact idea is to provide faculty with the knowledge and skills to truly accomplish that final translational research piece to benefit society.," Queen said. "The I-Corps programs are definitely beneficial and helped to move Advanced Codex Solutions forward with the business aspects of our development. I would say, though, the very valuable stages of Ideation are critical for success as well, and shouldn't be overlooked as a part of the process."

Zouridakis thanks the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation for their help. "They are incredibly knowledgeable and helped us clear up several issues related to technology commercialization and intellectual property", he said.

According to Wadhawan, one of the biggest obstacles to starting a business is getting in front of the right people and getting beneficial feedback.

Become a partner

If starting a company from scratch seems like a daunting task, there are other options. Zouridakis says to know your strengths, weaknesses and your limitations because at the end of the day, being a university professor, you don't have a lot of time outside of the classroom. Also, according to Zouridakis, your access to resources may be limited and you may not even have the knowledge to know how to go about achieving your idea.

"So, if an external investor wants to license your IP, develop it further, and commercialize it with you as a partner, please let go of your 'baby' — yes, you could develop your idea better and make it match your vision exactly, but you need to make sure you can commit the time, the resources, and the effort needed all within a short period of time. Wishful thinking does not count," Zouridakis said.

He also notes that "patience is a virtue; be persistent, be ready for rejection, and embrace failure; but never lose sight of the goal."

What's the big idea?

Teamwork really does make the dream work.

If you're a faculty member in academia and you're thinking about starting your own company, make sure you build a great innovation team that shares your values, understands your vision and wants to see the company succeed. Even with a strong team behind you, it may be beneficial to seek outside resources to help push your business forward. Also, if being a professor is already enough work for you, consider an external investor that can license your IP.

No matter what you do, as long as you have a good team to support you, you'll be okay.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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