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Entrepreneurial Support for Academic Inventors
Paul McAfee Paul H. McAfee
CEO
eXubrio, LLC
Amherst, NY

University technology transfer offices that want to improve new business creation from the universities' inventions regularly benchmark themselves against successful technology transfer departments. Many technology transfer offices have found it helpful to use on-site entrepreneurs or Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR). These on-site entrepreneurs have successfully started new businesses and understand the issues an inventor-founder will face. Many EIRs work pro bono, in the interest of supporting the university and its community, and often in the hope of finding a new startup to help develop and eventually run.

Technology transfer offices mostly license new inventions, creating revenue for the university and inventor, but often failing to create new jobs in their communities. By having entrepreneurs on-site to guide inventors through the business creation process, technology transfer offices increase the potential of new job creation. And they begin to establish an on-campus entrepreneurial culture that can encourage new inventors to consider launching businesses.

I spend 20% of my time each week working as a pro bono EIR at both the University of Rochester's Office of Technology Transfer and the University at Buffalo's Technology Incubator. At both sites I work with professors or Ph.D. candidates who want to start a business.

A Ph.D. inventor-founder is terrifically smart. They've worked hard, studied hard, defended a thesis, and have made it. On top of that, they now just might have invented something that could save the planet or be the next Microsoft.

But as smart as these founders are, there usually are gaps in their knowledge, especially in defining optimal business structure, or raising funds to start a new business. And only rarely do they have marketing, sales, and business development skills.

As an EIR, I have to convince the founders that they need to access new skills to be successful. Founders will talk to a lawyer. Getting them to talk to an accountant is harder. Getting the founder to listen to advice about the structure and strategy for a new business is much harder.

Do these questions sound familiar? "What do you mean, the new business needs a clearly stated value proposition?" "Why do I need key messages stated in the language of the customer?" "I know my value proposition."

One of my startup clients told me they already had a good value proposition. We started working on messaging for sales literature. However, we got stuck. We ended up spending a week reworking the value proposition until we could use it to create marketing, sales, and investor literature. Then we began looking at how to build a strong management team. Yes, it's "Start Up 101" stuff. But it's a mystery if you've not dealt with investors who look at risk first before looking at the bright idea.

Founders must realize that potential investors look more closely at their management team than their technology. Investors assess the probability that the new business will succeed. Investors know that founders rarely have the marketing, sales, and business development skills to move the business into a rapid growth phase.

EIRs help founders understand what investors need to know. They help founders understand how to communicate the value of their invention in simple language to prospects. In addition, they help founders define the organization and financial structure that will improve the chances of success.

Founders can help themselves by coming to the new business creation process with open minds. Listen to outsiders who have experience with high technology startups. Take their advice seriously. Talk to peers who have started new businesses. Start with the basics like marketing, sales, and business plan writing. Prepare yourself to talk with investors with the same intensity that a PhD candidate brings to defending a dissertation before their committee.

The EIR - if a founder is lucky enough to have access to one - can help the founder find these added critical skills. In addition, he or she can help prepare the founder to talk to investors and new customers in simple, clear, value delivery based language.

At both the University of Rochester and the University at Buffalo, I currently have promising inventors exploring the creation of new businesses. I give them both about a 75% chance of success. If one or both succeed, we will have new high-paying jobs, happy inventors, and new impetus for job growth in these two markets.

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