Startups

Can team mentoring turn researchers into entrepreneurs? These institutions are betting on it

There’s certainly a lot of talk about the funding issues that exist in translating academic research into commercial products. But on the path to commercialization, funding isn’t the only roadblock. “NIH has funded a lot of this research, to the point where faculty members have been able to get their research a ways down the […]

There’s certainly a lot of talk about the funding issues that exist in translating academic research into commercial products. But on the path to commercialization, funding isn’t the only roadblock.

“NIH has funded a lot of this research, to the point where faculty members have been able to get their research a ways down the pathway to commercialization,” said John Flavin, managing director at life sciences investor Flavin Ventures.

Sometimes, another big part of the technology transfer problem is that researchers are so acutely focused on their technologies for so many years that they aren’t sure what it’s going to take to move forward with commercialization.

That’s where programs like Chicago Innovation Mentors come in. It’s just one of a second generation of team mentoring programs based on the model used by the renowned MIT Venture Mentoring Service. (Others include the Hub of Human Innovation Team Mentoring program in El Paso, Texas; Merlin Mentors in Madison, Wisconsin; and George Washington University Entrepreneurs Round Table (GWERT) Mentors program in Washington, D.C.

Flavin is also executive director of Chicago Innovation Mentors, and he said the hope of the program is to transform the entrepreneurial culture in the Windy City from one that’s been traditionally risk-averse to one that’s more like the country’s most startup-prolific areas such as Silicon Valley.

Chicago Innovation Mentors, CIM for short, helps academic would-be entrepreneurs and their medical technologies make the leap by organizing teams of business mentors around them at no cost. The University of Chicago, Northwestern University, University of Illinois and the iBio Institute/PROPEL founded the initiative in late 2010, and Flavin came on board to lead it part-time in October of last year.

He said that in less than two years, 50 ventures and teams have been created with the help of 121 mentors.

The team-mentoring model lends itself to medical technology because of the industry’s complex, highly regulated, high-risk and IP-intensive nature, Flavin said.

“Our focus has been in healthcare because there’s a greater need and a lot of innovations that our technology transfer offices were looking to get on the commercial pathway,” he explained. That, combined with a growing appetite and activism among faculty, MBA students and postdocs looking for entrepreneurship opportunities, was the perfect impetus for the universities to launch the program.

The founding institutions vet faculty members and teams, choosing those with promising technologies and coachability to present to CIM’s mentors. After they present, the mentors can volunteer to be part of their mentoring teams, which meet monthly to discuss progress, questions and concerns.

“It’s the earliest stage that you can get involved, but it’s one of the most important ones,” said Flavin, himself a serial entrepreneur.

In many cases, the potential entrepreneurs have intellectual property but don’t have a company yet. That means the first milestone for many of the teams is incorporation of a business.

“What (academics are) challenged by is to understand that nailing the technology is just one small part of the overall equation of whether it can be turned into a product that can be brought to the marketplace,” Flavin said. “What we’ve found is it’s an eye-opening experience having mentors help them understand what the clinical strategy will look like, how long it will take, how much they’re going to be able to raise, and what kind of equity they’re going to have to give up. We’re not going to solve their problems, but we’re lighting up the road and putting a flashlight on the obstacles.”

That’s been a big driver behind the flood of accelerators and incubators that have emerged over the last decade, but unlike many of those programs, CIM doesn’t provide funding or office space, or take equity in the companies, and its focused solely on university discoveries.

Long-term, Flavin said the goal of CIM is to bring new disruptive products to the market in complex R&D areas like clean energy and physical sciences, and help the Chicago-area universities attract and retain top-level talent. In the short-term, it’s measuring success by looking at the ventures that are forming, the talent they’re recruiting, the capital they’re raising, and the customers they’re attracting.

To date, CIM companies have raised about $6 million in capital, consisting of some SBIR grants, some funds from the Illinois Invest Venture Fund and some from private placements.  Digital health company Agile Diagnosis, for example, raised a series A earlier this year, and device startup Corvida Medical raised a series B round. One company, Stage 8 Systems, was even sold this summer.

CIM is funded by its founding universities, new partner Argonne National Laboratory and a grant from the Chicago Biomedical Consortium. But the real fuel of the program is and will continue to be the spirit of innovation that seems to be especially present among healthcare entrepreneurs.

“In giving back, (the mentors) are able to quench that continuous thirst for innovation and start something from the beginning,” Flavin said. “There’s no replacement for that feeling of just being drawn to taking a risk and putting your best foot forward, and trying to get a product that you believe the world needs because it’s better than anything out there, particularly in healthcare where it’s not hard to be emotionally charged about a product or opportunity.”

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