This is the 31st article in a continuing series that examines the state of the ecosystem necessary to successfully bring technology to market. Based on dozens of interviews with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, business leaders, academics, tech-transfer experts and policy makers, this series looks at what is working and what can be improved in the go-to-market ecosystem in the United States, Canada and Britain. We invite your feedback.
Last week, we began a three-part recap of our Commercialization Ecosystem series with insights and practical advice on securing investment capital and finding champions to help get your technology to market. We continue this week with commercialization out of the university setting, the value of mentor capital and building your startup’s DNA.
11. University researchers needs champions, too
Academic researchers should not be expected to become entrepreneurs to develop their innovations into commercially viable products. They need business-savvy champions to pick up the ball and run with it while they continue to do what they do best – research.
“Commercialization requires expertise of a very different kind, and if we don’t have enough experts in the business of commercialization and managing innovation, then that’s the shortcoming on which to focus,” Tom Brzustowski, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management wrote in The Way Ahead, Meeting Canada’s Productivity Challenge.
12. So do students
“They know the science and technology, they will need a job and so are more likely to be heavily involved in a spin-out company than a tenured faculty member, and are happy and willing to learn the ropes on how something they helped developed in a laboratory can help solve a market or social need,” wrote Scott McAuley, founder of Lunanos Inc., and outreach and entrepreneurship associate at the Institute for Optical Sciences.
“Placing highly qualified graduate or undergraduate students into a network of industry professionals creates a powerful combination of market experience, technological expertise, and innovative drive, that can create new opportunities for universities’ two greatest products: IP and graduates.”
The wall between the classroom and the real world must come down, said Ronald Weissman, chair of the Software Special Industry Group at Band of Angels.
“If universities taught entrepreneurship as a value, we would all be better for it. If I were the head of a major university, I would love to see students demonstrate their prowess by starting things in the community, profit or non-profit … when you put students in a position to lead something, to start something, it gives them a very different view of the world,” he said.
13. Have a vision for your company
For any venture to succeed, its founders must have a vision that will stretch the boundaries of what they know and challenge what they believe is attainable.
“As entrepreneurs and business leaders, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and our time zones. We need to take advantage of emerging opportunities abroad. It isn’t easy, business seldom is, but it is the reality we live in today. It doesn’t matter if you make shoes, toilet paper or advanced telecommunications software,” said Andrew Fisher, executive VP at Wesley Clover.
14. Lever the power of diversity
Diversity, be it in terms of gender, ethnicity, industry experience or skillset, is crucial to building a strong, dynamic management team.
“Having a good balance is very important. You need a healthy debate with a diverse team of people who are right and left of center,” said software industry executive Jeff Campbell.
15. But don’t forget that you’re building a company, not an all-star team
“The value built needs to be in the company itself, not reliant on a few key people. Yes, you’ll need some talented people to help build the company, but just remember to actually build a company along the way. Good contracts, processes, strategy, oversight, margins, IP, lively meetings, strategically constructed barriers to entry, a flexible product road map, real culture, and some form of a solid CRM. These are just some of the things that give a company real value. If one or two people can leave your company and drop the value of your business in a significant way, you haven’t built a true company. And yes, that includes you,” wrote Nick Quain, co-founder and CEO of CellWand.
16. Know your startup’s DNA
It’s a myth to say there is a culture common to a typical startup. What a startup has is DNA that is as unique as the people who have founded it, a DNA which is shaped by its technology and where it fits into the market.
“Startups don’t have a common culture. This is a myth that’s been created, perhaps intentionally, by the 95 percent of people who’ve never worked for a startup … Startups have DNA, just like people. It may not surprise you to hear that a startup’s DNA is in part a mixture of its leaders’ DNA. If you think you merely have ‘startup culture,’ then you’re not driving your business, it’s driving you,” wrote Jason Flick, co-founder and president of YOU i Labs and president and CEO of Flick Software.
17. Appreciate the value of failure and risk
One of the best lessons to be learned from Silicon Valley’s culture is that failure is a virtue, provided, of course, you can demonstrate how you have learned from your failure.
“I’m a huge, huge believer in the only way you innovate is by failing. You’ve got to try different things and that means a lot of mistakes along the way. So if we can eliminate some of them, we can help clients get to market quicker and get them to do it on a more frugal budget,” said Tim Jackson, COO of Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre.
Valuing failure instead of fearing it goes hand in hand with having a healthy appetite for risk.
“Attitude towards risk is a huge barometer of entrepreneurial culture,” said Weissman.
18. Don’t overlook the value of mentor capital
A mentor, by definition, has already earned their degree in the school of hard knocks. Their counsel is often a more valuable resource for a startup than cold hard cash and the best insurance against avoiding the missteps that typically cause a startup to stumble.
“When we see companies at an early stage work with mentors, all those problems end up cut off. Talk to as many people as you can possibly humanly talk to … The more people you talk to, the fewer pitfalls you will fall into,” said Nicole Glaros, general manager of Tech Stars.
19. Seek out creative collisions
Coming together with like-minded individuals is crucial to entrepreneurial success. You must be willing to share your ideas, solicit feedback and take criticism. The environment of the typical startup incubator is an invaluable hotbed for this kind of interaction.
“The kind of client who gets in (to the Accelerator Centre) is someone who wants to learn, is not afraid to hire people who are as talented as they are, is not afraid to ask for help. So it’s a case of putting all of these smart people together, collectively they share ideas with one another and we think that having them in here, having access to the mentors, access to the community that is volunteering to help, is going to get them to market faster than if they were doing it on their own,” said Jackson.
20. Understand what it means to be lean
Eric Ries coined the term “lean startup” several years ago and recently updated his definition to mean “low burn. Of course, many startups are capital efficient and generally frugal. But by taking advantage of open source, agile software, and iterative development, lean startups can operate with much less waste.”
“Lean is not small. Lean is a tactic by which we help our entrepreneurs and our entrepreneurs help themselves in a data-driven way figure out how they’re going to iterate their product. And through data and through vision, we also pivot that business model if we believe the business model no longer works,” Ann Miura-Ko, co-founding partner with FLOODGATE, said in a lecture at Stanford titled Funding Thunder Lizard Entrepreneurs.
We conclude next week.