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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 by Miguel 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

 
 

Samantha Ettus of Park Place Payments joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she founded a company that lets individuals find financial independence while providing better customer service in the payments processing industry. Photo courtesy of Park Place Payments

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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