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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

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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