Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Bridging The Chasm Between Invention and Commercialization Part 2: Skills

Translational Research: Getting the message across,

This is the second in a series of postings about bridging the Valley of Death – the chasm between university-generated innovations and real-world products and services.  The first post examined the role of misaligned institutional incentives, and how they are beginning to change.  Future entries will look at tech transfer practices, as well as access to ecosystem resources.  This post focuses on skills gaps.  

Eric Kaler, the president of the University of Minnesota, was a coauthor on a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article titled, Changing the academic culture: Valuing patents and commercialization toward tenure and career advancement.” The piece argues the following benefits for a university that generates a lot of basic research to also promote commercialization:
  • Increased Opportunities for Research Funding (not just from federal agencies, but also from industry, foundations and alumni)
  • Access to Unrestricted Funds for Further Institutional Investment (i.e. licensing royalties)
  • Sustains High Scholarship Level (perhaps counterintuitively, the more a faculty researcher partners with industry, the more he or she publishes in high-impact journals, and the more those papers are cited)
  • Student Success (real-life research opportunities at all levels; increased career options for doctoral students and post-docs)
  • Increased Prestige (commercialization = knowledge dissemination = public recognition)
  • Public Benefit (make those innovations available to society)
  • Economic Development (jobs, jobs, jobs – especially important for public universities)
Let’s say that academics buy into this argument.  Then what?  Where does someone who has spent decades developing deep expertise as a researcher even start?  This is where academic commercialization education programs, like the NSF-funded National Innovation Corps, come in.

The I-Corps got started when Errol Arkilic, a program director at the NSF realized the power of Lean LaunchPad methodology to move innovations out of the lab and into marketplace, and contacted Steve Blank, one the major evangelizers of the Lean LaunchPad (aka Lean Startup or Lean Innovation) approach.  Steve has a nice podcast about those early conversations.  The first National Innovation Corps cohort was run through the Lean LaunchPad paces in Fall 2011.  Since that early success five years ago, the National Innovation Corps (NIN) has expanded to over 40 major universities around the US, offering various flavors of Lean Startup curricula and support.

The whole point of Lean LaunchPad is to go out and talk to customers, but this is easier said than done.  There is a methodology to customer discovery, value proposition design and business model design.  The NIN is not a passive curriculum (just reading The Lean Startup on an airplane is not going to cut it), but an immersion experience, where teams apply concepts to their specific projects in order to move them forward.

  • At the national and regional levels, seven universities act as “nodes,” providing10-week experiential training to entrepreneurial teams composed of an entrepreneurial lead (typically a grad student or post-doc), a principal investigator (faculty), and a mentor (an experienced entrepreneur).  This intense immersion program not only provides information about such topics as customer discovery and the business model canvas, but – more importantly – forces teams to go out and speak to LOTS of customers (100 is the goal) in order to (in)validate their value proposition hypotheses. 
  • At the local level, 36 universities currently act as “sites,” with a wide variety of Lean LaunchPad-inspired offerings.  The sites develop skills at the local level and also feed teams to the node programs. But, more importantly, they adapt to local conditions and spread the Lean LaunchPad mindset and skill set across their institutions, as well as their broader educational and business communities. 
Here is a directory of current National I-Corps nodes and sites.

Here at the University of Minnesota, our MIN-Corps program accelerates commercialization through four touch-points:

-- Awareness building

Bootcamps - What does commercialization even entail?  A one-day bootcamp to expose faculty, research staff, grad students and industry partners to key concepts, processes and considerations.  This spring, we’ll be doing bootcamps on Medical Technology Commercialization, and Environmental Tech & Biotechnology Commercialization

- Emerging Opportunities Forum – What are the commercialization implications of breakthrough research?  An opportunity for academics and business people to explore new themes

-- Skills development

               -  Our STARTUP course is the classic LeanStartup curriculum, but with an extra layer of external advisors and mentors.  This rigorous and intense semester-long program is focused on students on the undergrad and graduate level, with the occasional participation of post-docs and faculty

               -  Value Proposition Design Workshops are our version of “Lean LaunchPad Lite.”  Primarily focused at faculty, as well as the post-docs and grad students working on commercialization research within their labs.  This spring, we’ll be doing workshop series on Medical Technology Commercialization and Environmental Tech & Biotechnology Commercialization

-- Connections

               -  In all our programs, we bring in external advisors and mentors.  These experts challenge our participants’ assumptions and help them make customer connections to vet their value propositions.  They also may help with the initial steps to launch their ventures. The experts are sourced from multiple sources, including the mentors and judges who support the Minnesota Cup venture competition, as well as the business advisory group of the Venture Center at the UMN Office for Technology Commercialization.

-- Ongoing support

               - We’re now formalizing something that we’ve done informally for a long time – providing advice and connections to past program participants.  The business concepts that come out of the U of M are often very ambitious, and may take months or years to get off the ground.  Ongoing Strategy Clinics are monthly meetings for past program participants who are actively working on commercialization to continue to build knowledge and connections, gain new insights, and do mutual problem-solving.

See the MIN-Corps site for more info on our programs.