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University of Houston: What should a faculty inventor’s role be in their startup?

Should you lead the company that's taking your technology to commercialization? Maybe. But maybe not. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Are you a faculty member at a university? Are you a researcher with an invention that you want to monetize? Do you want to start your own startup company? If you answered yes to these questions, another question you need to consider is, should you leave your research position at the university to lead your company or get out of the way entirely?

The answer to that question will be different for everyone. Some faculty inventors want to leave and launch a company based on their research. In most cases, faculty members want to keep their university roles. What is the right decision for you?

Douglas Hockard, the assistant vice president of Tech Launch Arizona at The University of Arizona, said, in a Tech Launch blog post, to consider your passion, time and expertise.

Do you have the passion?

Passion is required for anyone to enjoy their chosen career paths. Without passion, you are not going to want to dedicate your time or seek the expertise to become the best.

“Faculty researchers chose their careers intentionally, dedicating years of study and research to arrive where they are today. Most faculty are not interested in abandoning that career path,” Hockard said.

Leading a startup requires the same dedication that it took to get where you are in your university role.

Do you have the time?

A startup is not a part-time job. “While faculty researchers are rarely interested in leaving their career in the university, investors want a committed, and focused, leadership team. More than anything, the startup needs someone to focus full-time… to eschew any other pursuits and devote themselves fully to the success of the startup,” Hockard said.

Do you have the expertise?

Hockard mentions in his blog that there are roles that exist in startups for university faculty. The faculty inventor is the technology expert, and their knowledge will help in the commercialization of their technology. Sometimes there are better ways to support the startup while remaining in your university position.

“A scientific role in the company allows them to help guide the company technology direction while allowing someone else to focus on company formation, strategic planning, business development, and importantly, raising capital. What is most important is aligning the myriad needs of the startup with the knowledge, skills, and singular focus best suited to fulfill those needs,” Hockard said.

What's the big idea?

If you don’t have the passion, the time, or the expertise to run a startup or you just simply want to keep your university, maybe someone else should lead your startup.

“Without a doubt, identifying leadership can be daunting. While the desire might be to zero in on a ‘superstar,’ a startup needs someone that can commit the time and the effort and knows ‘what to do next.’ How can startups find that person?” Hockard said.

Your university’s technology transfer office can provide support and can be a good place for you to start. “TTOs provide myriad resources to help inventors move innovations ahead, including technology and market analysis, intellectual property protection, marketing, and more. Many full-service TTOs also have dedicated personnel to help launch startups based on university technologies.” Of course, it’s up to you who should join the company— especially to lead it— but having the support of “experienced potential partners” will help you make the right decision.

Startups need a lot of resources to become successful. Bringing in someone to help, if you don’t have the passion, time or expertise, could be very beneficial. If you do have all three of those things and you want to leave your university role, then go be the lead in your startup.

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

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Just after announcing an investment from United, NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc. scored a SPAC-based IPO. Photo via nextrenewables.com

It’s been a momentous month for Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc.

On November 15, United Airlines Ventures announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in the next-generation, low-carbon fuel producing company.

Just a week later, the company revealed it’s going public through a SPAC merger with Industrial Tech Acquisitions II Inc. The deal, expected to close in the second quarter of 2023, assigns a $666 million equity value to NEXT. The publicly traded company will be named NXTCLEAN Fuels Inc.

NEXT, founded in 2016, produces low-carbon fuels from organic feedstock. The company plans to open a biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, that’s set to start production in 2026. The refinery could produce up to 50,000 barrels per day of sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels.

“West Coast states are demanding a clean fuels conversion of the transportation and aviation industries with aggressive targets necessitating rapid increases in clean fuel supplies,” Christopher Efird, executive chairman and CEO of NEXT, says in a news release. “[The company] is advancing toward becoming one of the largest U.S.-based suppliers of clean fuels for these markets, and is investigating and pursuing potential vertical expansion into other clean fuels.”

The proposed public listing of NEXT’s stock on the Nasdaq market and United’s investment are poised to help NEXT reach its goal of becoming a leader in the clean fuel sector. United’s investment appears to be the first equity funding for NEXT.

“Right now, one of the biggest barriers to increasing supply and lowering costs of sustainable fuel is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to transport it efficiently, but NEXT’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built,” Michael Leskinen, president of United Airline Ventures, says in a news release.

United’s investment arm, launched in 2021, targets ventures that will complement the airline’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

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