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Photonics West Entrepreneurship Challenge expands in 2012

By Dirk Fabian

Have you ever thought your research might really help people or be a product that people would use? Have you wondered if you could make the transition from technology expert to business leader? At some point, many grad students and young researchers ask themselves these questions and come up short. Most university research programs, by their nature, produce academic researchers, not business-oriented ones. While your supervisor might claim to be "running a small business," his or her "income" is grant money for research and there is a university salary on top of that. It's not the same.

There are fundamental differences between running a lab and starting and running a technology-based business. It takes a set of management skills, a passionate mindset, and a much more varied support network. Students interested in an entrepreneurial career pathway often have the first two pieces, but lack the network that can help take them beyond the lab.

New programs developed for Photonics West can help provide some of the missing pieces of your network, namely experienced technology mentors that you can connect with.  Photonics West is the largest research and trade show for the optics and photonics community in the world. Its location in downtown San Francisco lends it some advantages beyond what is found at a typical research conference - specifically the close relationship with innovators, entrepreneurs, and venture capital. Not only do these people just "show up" at the conference to keep current, more are becoming involved as contacts, mentors, and judges for the Start-up Challenge.

In January 2011, Newport / Spectra-Physics sponsored and SPIE hosted the first Biophotonics Start-up Challenge at Photonics West. Nineteen researchers (PhD students and post-docs) with an eye on setting up a new venture went head-to-head in front of a panel of judges to present their elevator pitch for a new biophotonics product. With only two minutes each to make an impression, the scientific portions of the talk had to be pared down to only the most critical and impactful parts. Turning years of research into a 1 minute summary can't be done without a lot of practice. The best pitches avoided heavy jargon and started with an interesting problem.

The One Minute Business Case

However, what really differentiated the winners of the Start-up Challenge was their business case. They answered questions like: Is there a market for the product? What are the production costs and anticipated sales? Who are the competitors? In the span of a minute, no one expects extensive information, but partners and investors need to get the idea that the product has potential. They are betting their time and money on success. Having even ballpark guesses of finances can set a pitch above the crowd. Rather than create a new tutorial for elevator pitches, there are good references on the web:

"Learn how to deliver a masterful elevator pitch" - contains the key questions you should answer about the business case

"How to craft a killer elevator pitch.." - great tips on how to refine the pitch.

"You know what your company does.." - a more conversational explanation explaining pitch language

It is essential to treat the business side of the technology in order to progress in these types of competitions.


The goal of the 2012 Start-up Challenge is two-fold. The first is to successfully add an Optoelectronics Start-up Challenge to the already successful Biophotonics version. The second is to provide more feedback and contact between the participants and the judges so that students can network, ask questions and develop their ideas. We got great feedback from the judges and audience members who wanted to volunteer time to work with students participating in the competition. 

In addition, participants giving the top three elevator pitches are sponsored to attend either the UC Davis Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy or the more general UC Entrepreneurship Academy. This week-long academy connects students with members of the fertile Silicon Valley business development environment. Business plans are developed, critiqued, and polished.  Prof. Andrew Hargadon, architect of the academy, has a favorite phrase, "the network is the innovation" by which he means that no one person has all the skills needed to take a new technology venture to success. Networks of experts are needed to fill in the gaps and accelerate the development process.  The Academies do the work of bringing the expertise of seasoned technology entrepreneurs together into one place so that they can be a part of the new entrepreneurial networks.

Students wishing to participate in the Start-up Challenge for either the Biophotonics division or the Optoelectronics division are advisd to start early with the preparation and discussion of commercialization possibilities with their network of contacts. Learn how a pitch is different than a research talk and practice, practice, practice.

To learn more about the Entrepreneurship Academy and why a scientist or engineer might want to explore the commercial possibilities of their technology, this video featuring Prof. Andrew Hargadon of UC-Davis goes into details: