University’s incubators guide, advise startup teams

The Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) often refers inventors and researchers with an idea for commercializing technology to either Lou Walcer, director of the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences at Cornell, or to Robert Scharf ’77, director of Cornell’s Praxis Center for Venture Development. Walcer, Scharf and others often then work with the aspiring entrepreneurs to assist them in applying to these or other incubators and programs; they also may advise them on developing a plan, finding resources and growing their potential business, helping them take further advantage of the plethora of startup resources across Cornell’s campuses.

When it comes to licensing Cornell technology to a startup team, Walcer said that CTL follows a checklist-type approach (it also publishes a comprehensive Startup Guide for faculty, staff and students that covers licensing and intellectual property questions, financing strategies, idea incubation, business planning, and more). “Generally speaking, they want to know that there’s a team and that there are some resources behind it,” he said.

He typically explains what CTL is looking for to would-be entrepreneurs, who may lack both a team and resources, as “the type of discussion that you may have had with your dad the first time you wanted to take the family car out on a Saturday night: ‘Have you got some money in your pocket? Do you know where you’re going? Who’s going to be in the car with you?’ And CTL has similar concerns – you don’t want to make the investment of wedding a Cornell technology to an unproven team or to somebody without a plan, he explained: Ideally, you’d like to have more experience rather than less.

In an academic environment, inventors sometimes assume their scientific knowledge constitutes a business plan. “They think, ‘Hey, I invented this stuff. Who else knows more about this field than me? So of course people are going to buy it,'” Walcer said. “But that isn’t always the case.”

Walcer often recommends entrepreneurs take a National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) short course on customer discovery – “which can give you a deep and quick dive into interviewing prospective users of your product or technology or service, and which can tell you, from the user’s perspective, whether or not you’ve got something,” he said. Or he suggests entrepreneurs enroll in a business class on campus that deals with private equity or commercialization of academic technology.

As to the “how much money have you got in your pocket” question, typically a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant is the first source of funding for academic technology startups. Quite a few government programs offer SBIRs. The grant works as a foundational investment, giving nascent startups about six months to chase their initial goals. Most clients in both the Praxis and McGovern centers get their start with these grants, Walcer said.

“A fair amount of our early work with would-be clients is helping them get prepped so that they can go after these grants appropriately,” he said. That may mean referring them to a consultant, or ensuring that they have a credible business plan to present to potential grant authorities. “We typically also try to introduce them to Cornell alums who are knowledgeable in the field.”

Of course, incubators also provide physical space, which is particularly important in the life sciences arena, Walcer noted. While someone developing an app or a replacement for Bitcoin may need little more than a laptop and a robust internet connection, someone developing a drug, diagnostic method or medical device likely needs at least a quarter of a million dollars of laboratory hardware. Lab space can make all the difference during that germinal stage where all they likely have is the first phase of an SBIR grant, Walcer said.

A guiding principle built into Cornell’s incubators and accelerators, Walcer said, is that their clients must be making progress on their companies and technologies. Each will need their own particular timeline for development and challenges, but “you must be pursuing and making progress,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re moving out.”

That expectation is really unique, said Walcer, who previously served as chair of the Business Incubator Association of New York State. Of the 40 incubators he supervised in that role, “none had this type of requirement for performance,” he said. “Here, the expectation is higher and so the results have been much higher.”

This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of Ezra magazine.

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