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First Steps - From the lab to the marketplace

By Dirk Fabian

In the course of your research, it may happen that you get a very good idea. This leads you to develop a thing - a product - that is superior to what is currently available. Before long, some of the people around you suggest that they would pay money for your product and that other people may do the same. Colleagues may get envious; your advisor may get aggitated. These are in fact good signs that you might have made something worth taking out of the lab and on the road to mass production and commercialization.

But now what? Let's assume that you are really fired-up about developing the product. It's a very important assumption because much of what happens later in the journey rests on your passion and drive. Whether your vision is improving people's health, helping people connect, or simply changing exisiting technology, this motivating vision comes from within. Yet, even with passion and drive, most undergraduate and graduate students, having been trained rigorously in the sciences, do not have the background in business needed to confidently take the next steps. Thankfully, students are used to this feeling of uncertainty and often make good choices because they know that they do not know.

Here are some suggested steps that can help set you on the right pathway.

1. Talk to your advisor first, it's the proper thing to do. Be prepared to consider their interests in the commercialization process.

2. Talk to your university's technology transfer office. More and more schools offer this as a service and they want to hear from you.

3. Seek out allies in the business school and law school. Get as much free advice as possible. Focus on your Intellectual Property needs. One of the best questions to ask is "Who should I contact to learn more about...?"

4. Get some training in entrepreneurship (see suggestions below).

5. Become an evangelist for your product / company. Nobody can do this for you, but your passion is often what will motivate others.

Judges (left) and winners (right) in the BiOS Start-up Challenge

Photonics West 2012 BiOS Start-up Challenge participants (l-r) Judges: Wellington Chadehumbe - Triumph Venture Capital, Jay Kumler - Jenoptik, Adam Wax - Duke University, Jason Eichenholz - Ocean Optics and winners (l-r) Carlos Serpa (1st), Babak Shadgan (2nd), Scott Rowe (3rd tie), Dan Gareau (3rd tie)

6. The final suggestion is to enter some start-up or business pitch competition. These competitions usually involve giving a short presentation for your product, sketching the business case, and fielding questions from the judges about the plan, the market, and your team. They are a great way to get some experience pitching to a non-scientific audience, network with other people interested in entrepreneurship, gain publicity, and potentially win some start-up cash. The good news is that research and educated guessing will take you a long way, as long as you are prepared to answer a wide range of questions.

Here are some questions that any new technology business should be able answer from optics consultant and venture capitalist Laura Smoliar, of Peppertree Engineering.

1) What problem are you solving? Is the product/service of the business clearly stated and put in context of an appropriate ecosystem?

2) Who is on the team now, and what holes need to be filled going forward? (Management team, technical team, BOD, advisory board...)

3) What is the go-to-market strategy? Is it credible?

4) Do you have any committed customers? How many are in the pipeline?

4) What is the key differentiation of your technology & barrier to entry for others? 

5) If technology is key, is it defensible? What is the status of patents and patent applications, FDA approval, etc.?

6) What key milestones have been achieved so far and what is the milestone plan for the next two quarters?

7) What are you asking for (investment funding, partners, R&D or prototyping) and is it stated clearly? What would the money be used for?

Recently, SPIE hosted the Biophotonics and Optoelectronics Start-up Challenges at Photonics West. These competitions were judged by product development experts and venture capitalists with the winners being funded by Jenoptik to attend the UC-Davis Entrepreneurship Academy.

BiOS Start-up Challenge judges confer before the event

BiOS Challenge judges confer before the start of the competition

This competition drew a great deal of interest from exhibitors and other people interested in starting a commercial venture, including investors. SPIE arranged for the participants to meet with the judges for a feedback session afterwards to get more personal advice on their venture. The Start-up Challenge was quite successful and will return for Photonics West 2013.

There are competitions like this taking place around the world. If you have interest in product commercialization, they are a great venue to practice your pitch, refine your strategy, and meet people that may form an integral part of your team. Few high technology businesses can be successful with one person doing everything, so network-building may be the most useful part of all of these.

Other Competitions:

MIT Entrepreneurship Competition - $100k in prizes

Converge Challenge - Heriot-Watt University - £45k

Big Bang! Business Competition - UC Davis Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

NSBEpreneur Elevator Pitch and Business Plan competitions - National Society of Black Engineers

Duke Start-up Challenge - $50k in prizes

Collegiate Inventors Competition - $100k in prizes

Business Plan Competition - Brigham Young University - $100k in prizes


Entrepreneurship Training:

Techno 2012 - University of Toronto Institute for Optical Sciences

Intensive Training on Entrepreneurship in Photonics 3rd Edition - Brussels Photonics Team

Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy - UC Davis

Entrepreneurship Academy - UC Davis