Overcoming the Tech Valley of Death

How Carnegie Mellon is Turning Academic Research into Innovative Products

There’s a graveyard of impressive research results that were created in university environments but never launched as products.

What is keeping academic research-based technology from successfully entering the market?

Maybe the inventor never found a way to spin the technology into a business. Maybe they never got financial backing from an investor.

A technology can have amazing results in the lab but it may never take off without the right people and resources.

Reed McManigle, from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), has seen this a million times. He’s spent the last 35 years helping inventors and entrepreneurs take their early-stage research and product concepts all the way to market.

In this interview, he shares how his team is spinning technologies and new inventions out of the university by connecting researchers with entrepreneurs and investors. Bonus: Reed also gives the inside scoop on the Pittsburgh tech landscape and shares practical tips on how to get involved.

 

The conversation below has been edited for length and content.

What are you currently doing at Carnegie Mellon?

I’m in the technology transfer office at CMU known as the Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation. My focus is on the enterprise creation side. Most of our office is focused on managing intellectual property, inventions, filing patents, negotiating licenses and so on.

My role is specifically to help inventors who are interested in startup companies. I give them access to my own knowledge and contacts, help them connect with other resources at CMU, and help them connect with the outside world – entrepreneurs, investors, and corporates.

 

Can you tell us about the process of spinning technologies and new inventions out of universities?

It all sounds very cool and exciting, but it’s very challenging.

One of the challenges we face is that academic research isn’t really product focused; it’s basic research focused. So when they come into our office and say, “Hey I have something,” it’s usually a research result and pretty far from being a product.

The funding resources that traditionally fund academic research usually dry up at that stage. On the other hand, they aren’t ready for commercial funding. There we have this “valley of death” and have to figure out how to get across.

Another challenge is that the people who are academic inventors don’t typically have business skills. They might want to begin a startup but don’t actually have any startup or business experience.

We also don’t know who’s going to be a part of the startup team. You could have a faculty member who’s probably not going to give up their job. Or a PhD student who may have visa issues or a great job offer at Google or Facebook.

So who’s going to be part of this startup? It’s a cool invention, but who’s going to run with it? Building a startup involves putting together the team, finding the right technical people, and bringing on a business person. Or maybe training the technical people so they could be the initial founding team.

We have to be really creative at the early stage to try and get this invention into the hands of a startup that can find customers and raise money.

 

It sounds a bit like an accelerator baked into a university. Is that a fair comparison?

We’re sort of a pre-accelerator program.

We do have accelerator-type programs within our operations. We have an NSF funded I-Corps program within CMU to teach customer discovery principals, and an Innovation Fellowship program where we give late-stage PhD students or early post-docs a $50,000 fellowship and coach them on starting a business.

But in a direct sense, we try to coach people far enough along so they’re eligible and have interest in outside accelerator programs.

 

Are there any specific success stories of how a company came through this program and got to a next stage of funding?

A lot of folks have heard of DuoLingo. It’s actually a CMU startup company.

That one was on the easy end of the spectrum because the inventor had a previous startup that he’d been successful with and sold to Google. So he actually had investors coming to him saying, “whatever your next idea is, we trust you. Please take our money.”

He came through our office, we did the same kind of deal that we’d done for his prior startup, and off he went with the connections he needed. So that’s the easy end of the scale.

The other end, like a material science or energy concept that’s still pretty far from a product, is much harder. You might have a PhD student come in with a great comparable data at a lab scale, but they don’t earn their PhD degree or publish research papers for doing the applied work to turn that research result into a product prototype. They have to do fundamental work to get their PhD, and the traditional sources of funding for the fundamental research won’t pay for the applied work

I’ve been struggling for years to find a way of getting some of these amazing ideas out of the lab.

Another problem we face is that PhD students often have an academic offer at another university to start their career, and the professor working with the student isn’t a business person. In those cases, the concept won’t go anywhere if we can’t find someone to step in on the technical and business sides.

As an example, I’ve been facing this challenge for years on a particular project until relatively recently when I found an investor who likes to get involved at the formation stage. He doesn’t need the startup opportunity to be all wrapped up with a team and customer traction. Instead, he’ll say, “show me a cool technology and I’ll work with it from there.”

Another example of how we’ve addressed this team building challenge is related to a technology in the space of agricultural robotics. A faculty member and PhD student got a startup set up and had some initial traction with pilot customers through earlier research relationships. The product involves robots that are using computer vision to assess plant maturity, quality, and diseases.

The researchers got the startup set up, got an initial customer, and the PhD student started running with it full time after he graduated. But for it to actually scale, they needed someone with more business experience. Then a local serial entrepreneur came and was like, “Reed, you have something else? I’m looking for my next thing.” So I got him introduced to this agricultural tech robotics company and he’s now the CEO.

In that case, it came together because of the personal relationships I had. Now that I have a list of opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors, I can ask what they’re looking for and show them what we currently have. I’ll give them the backstory and see if both parties want to connect. I play this sort of dating service game with inventors, entrepreneurs, and investors.

 

Is there an area folks can be directed to who want to get involved?

We like to say there’s not a single door into CMU.

I’m working in the technology transfer office, which means I’m working on situations where we own the IP. We also have a sister organization, the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, that works with everyone affiliated with CMU regardless of IP ownership. They typically work with undergraduates, masters’ students and alumna who own their own IP. We do overlap some in working with PhD students and faculty where CMU owns the IP.

They have a couple different programs under the Swartz Center that make it easy for outside people to get involved with our startup ecosystem. There’s a mentor program, through which prospective mentors are screened and then their profiles are posted for CMU founders to find.  mentor’s profile so students could reach out. They also have a program called VentureBridge through which alumni/recent graduates are selected for an accelerator that that is run in the summers in San Francisco. They also have a speed dating event for mentors to connect with startups and vice versa.

A more ad hoc approach through which community experts support our entrepreneurs is through the Swartz Center Office Hours program. We have 100 or more community experts who volunteer a half hour to give our startups advice based on their area of expertise.

We have a very broad range of people with expertise. That includes patent attorneys, corporate attorneys, immigration attorneys, FDA regulation experts, accountants, and so on. Some volunteer to get involved and give back to the community. Some do it as a way to build up their client pipeline. They know these people aren’t going to pay for that first half hour, but it’s a great way to develop the relationship before the startup has locked in their vendor relationships. When they do have money, that vendor will be the go-to person.

Then, on a more personal level, I work as a conduit to match people in any given situation. I’m deeply involved with the startups in the CTTEC portfolio and know what their needs are, so I’m able to make the connection.

 

At hatchpad, we’re passionate about getting involved in emerging tech hubs. A lot is happening in Pittsburgh, in terms of innovation and startups. Can you speak about how outside technologists might get involved and navigate that ecosystem?

There are different paths. For people who are trying to find jobs in these technology companies, we work a lot with an organization called Innovation Works. They have three accelerators, a Seed funding program, and a venture fund. Their accelerator programs are for software, hardware, and healthcare tech. On top of their 3 accelerators and seed funding program, they also have an H.R. counseling program and a matchmaker type program for their companies to find talent.

As we work on getting companies spun out of CMU, the first place they often go is Innovation Works. So they’re slightly downstream from us. That’s a good place to find companies that have at least initial funding.

Larger companies will post job openings through the Pittsburgh Technology Council where they have a careers section. There are a number of other accelerators in town that could be good ways to find startup companies. Ascender and One Valley are examples. One Valley is opening up a new accelerator in Pittsburgh. They’re having a pitch competition now to build out their portfolio of companies and then they’re opening up a physical space at Mill 19, the redevelopment of a former steel mill site.

There are also a bunch of different meetups for coders or for startups.

All these different programs are going on in the region.

Pittsburgh really is getting on the radar and has become known for software, AI, and robotics.

It’s a land of opportunity.

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Author: Lauren Alexander

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