In 1980 the Bayh-Dole Act supported universities and federal research labs as centers of innovation. In the decades since, these institutions have developed numerous resources to help students, faculty and staff commercialize ideas. However, commercialization is not a fundamental operation of either universities or federal labs. Consequently navigating the resources available can be difficult.
Often the hardest as well as most important first step for a new start up is bringing together the right team to develop the initial idea into a successful venture. For many entrepreneurs the initial instinct is to bring together individuals of similar background to conquer the most apparent hurdle. In a scientific start up for example, the founder may recruit 3 Ph.ds from the same field to address technical proof of concept issues.
The danger in the aforementioned strategy is that a company can over pay for redundant skill sets. In the science example, scientists are likely design a product with academic publications in mind with less thought to customer preferences and manufacturing costs.
A different strategy is to focus on a well-rounded team, a technical expert to develop proof of concept, a marketing expert to interface with potential customers and relay market preferences to the tech expert, and a finance person to explore various pricing options both for product development and sales. The difficulty here is that identifying and managing this group can be time consuming and costly since their may not be full time employment for all the necessary skill sets at the first funding.
Non-dilutive grant funding should complement investment funding. Commercialization grants such as SBIR and STTR programs are great programs that are familiar to most university researchers. Still these grants are intended to fund basic research and as such represent a much smaller investment pool than venture capital. In 2016, the SBIR and STTR programs awarded 3,000+ grants for an estimated total of $1.3 billion. During that same year, venture capital made 13,000+ investments for an estimated total of $127 billion.
University entrepreneurs should cultivate both investment and grant capital. Grant funding provides dilution free capital and technical assistance with finishing concept development. Investment capital can provide the funds, guidance and additional resources to successfully construct and sell a product.
"Free" resources often have a cost. Most entrepreneurs focus on the outside financial costs associated with building a new company; but, the time cost associated with creating a start up can be just as important to a company's success. A start up founder needs to be able to capitalize on the resources that are valuable to them at a particular point in time and not get unduly distracted by a continual pursuit of grants and contacts.
Networking can be a time sink when creating a start up. Few companies are successful without making the right connections. Still entrepreneurs can spend so much time having "soft" coffee meetings that they neglect efforts that push the company forward. A commercialization engine needs to help filter out superficial meetings while connecting entrepreneurs with the skill sets they need for that particular venture.
Adding more meet-ups, classes, or grant programs available to professors does not necessarily translate into a better start-up environment. At some point a university needs to add substance and depth to it's programs so that fewer programs the provide greater benefit to the entrepreneur.