The article below appeared in the May 2011 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here to subscribe.
Having launched one of the first business incubators in the country three decades ago, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, has certainly nurtured its share of young start-ups. However, in recent months, commercialization experts at the university began to question whether the traditional incubator model, which is typically located in a single building and funded by lease payments provided by resident start-ups, was really the best way to promote commercialization and economic growth in the region.
“I started looking at what our signature research thrusts are here at RPI, and I realized that a one-size-fits-all model to incubation really didn’t make any sense,” explains Laban Coblentz, chief of staff and associate vice president for policy and planning at RPI. For one thing, standard office space does not necessarily meet the needs of an enterprise that requires wet-lab space, says Coblentz. Further, RPI is located in a city that is filled with “gorgeous old buildings that are not as full as we would like them to be,” he says. “The landlords are very eager to fill them.”
Coblentz and his colleagues decided that it was time to redesign their approach to incubation in such a way that companies would stand a better chance of getting their needs met while the community was receiving benefits as well. “What evolved from that is a ‘distributed incubation’ model which starts with an ideal match-up of space to enterprise, and rejects the notion that you cannot still get very strong benefit in the sense of rubbing shoulders [with like-minded entrepreneurs] and mentoring if you are not all in one building,” says Coblentz. “And we are experimenting with it. The challenge is figuring out how to maintain the same level of contact [among young start-ups] when the companies are a bit more spread out.”
Create a one-stop shop
Matching businesses to space is just one aspect of the new model. The institute is also trying to streamline the commercialization process under the umbrella of what it is calling the Emerging Ventures Ecosystem (EVE) program. The idea, says Coblentz, is to connect all the different resources for commercialization so that students and faculty can come to one source to get what they need.
Richard Frederick, who has been an entrepreneur-in-residence at RPI for the past two years, and is now directing the EVE program, explains that the new program has likely opened up the commercialization process to more budding entrepreneurs. “The old program involved paying rent, so if a company didn’t have funding to pay for rent, they wouldn’t necessarily be in the incubator,” he says. “Right now we are not limiting anybody’s access to the EVE program.”
Some of the companies participating in EVE start off as home-based ventures, says Frederick. “They may be in locations of their own choosing, or if they ask me to assist them in finding a location, I have landlords that I can direct them to,” he says. “Eventually they have to locate somewhere, but anything we can do to reduce barriers to somebody starting a company is certainly to their advantage.”
Frederick says he is in frequent contact with the technology transfer office to discuss new inventions from either faculty or students that have potential commercial applications. “The TTO will refer those back to me and then [my office] will begin working with the inventors to develop an organization and a business plan around the technology that is being patented,” he explains.
Part of the process involves pairing new entrepreneurs with a mentor who can best assist them in nurturing their enterprise. “Through RPI we have a pool of about 90,000 alumni, and I am working directly with both the alumni office and the president of the alumni association,” says Frederick. “When we have a company looking for a particular mentor, we find someone who has experience in that industry or maybe has expressed an interest in working with that particular type of company.”
Typically, Frederick will give an entrepreneur the names of a couple of potential mentors so he or she can reach out to them and determine whether there is compatibility. Once a match is made, Frederick says his office continues to work with the enterprise to help foster the relationship. Though it’s been only a few months since the program launched, students and faculty are clearly responding to the approach.
“Since we announced the EVE program [in February 2011], we have had more companies come down here, more students come down here, and more faculty come down here looking for assistance in getting their businesses launched,” says Frederick. “I have even had companies from off-campus reach out to me, saying they saw an article in the paper about the program and they want to know more about it.”
Get stakeholders on the same page
While there are myriad resources on the RPI campus that can assist the commercialization process, in the past these resources have tended to operate independently, explains Gina Colarelli O’Connor, director of the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship in the Lally School of Management and Technology at RPI. “We had little pieces operating in their own little silos around innovation,” she says, referring to multiple research centers, a technology park, the office of research, and so on. “None of us were really talking to each other on a regular basis.”
To correct this problem, one component of the EVE program is the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Council, a bi-weekly meeting of representatives from all these disparate areas so that any holdups or problems can be resolved expeditiously, explains Coblentz. “What we are finding is that while each of these offices or centers at RPI has a different function, and for that reason perhaps different priorities and different expertise, there is a 90% to 95% overlap in objective,” he says. “Almost all of us have the same kinds of ideals about what we hope to achieve, and that is just not something that comes out when your organization is stove-piped. So this involves taking a more informal approach to trouble-shooting than we might have taken in the past.”
Having all the stakeholders in one location eliminates the need for endless phone calls and misunderstandings that can arise when everyone is on a different page, explains Coblentz. For example, he recalls that when it became clear RPI needed to identify some workspace that students with ideas in the pre-seed stage could use to develop their innovations, the matter was quickly resolved in one of these bi-weekly meetings.
“In the past that would have resulted in one or more phone calls going back and forth from one person to another, trying to figure out how to clear this hurdle and solve that problem,” he says. “The bi-weekly meeting is sort of a jam-session where we get together and identify what the hold-ups are, try to resolve issues, and move forward. What we are doing is coming up with joint solutions more rapidly.”
Take a broader view of incubation
Another key characteristic of the distributed incubation model is that RPI is focused on establishing sustained relationships with new enterprises. This involves taking a much broader view of incubation, and culling additional value from the approach. In fact, under this model, the value should flow in both directions, explains Coblentz.
“In our traditional model, we stopped with incubation. Companies only came in after they were at a certain seed level, and the goal was to graduate them after three years in a sort of formulaic approach. Once they reached a certain point they were on their own,” he says. The idea under EVE, however, is not only to continue to provide support to new ventures beyond the traditional incubation stage, but also to draw value from the alumni running these companies.
To fully tap into the institution’s alumni base, RPI is building an external advisory board for the EVE program, it is lining up alumni who are interested in serving on the company boards of start-ups, and EVE administrators are looking at ways to get alumni more in touch with the school’s research centers, says Coblentz. “The more I looked at this, the more I realized that alumni are very eager to get involved. It’s more a matter of creating a system and creating methods for them to get engaged,” he says. “This is a big shift in our perspective.”
The idea of having a base of support for years into the future appeals to Brent Solina, a senior at RPI who is currently at the pre-seed stage with a company developing a process that uses biological microbes to break down food waste in a way that generates heat and electricity. “The Capital region [in New York] is a good place to start a business because the cost of living is pretty low and there are a lot of good resources here, but the thing that has really made me stick around and completely ignore the fact that I could leave the area is all the people I have met,” he says. “There are people I can call and get a half-hour of IP advice for free, and I wouldn’t know those people if it wasn’t for EVE. What [program developers] have done is taken all these [entrepreneurial resources] and made them easier to access.”
Contact Coblentz at firstname.lastname@example.org; Frederick at 518-588-3727 or email@example.com; O’Connor at 518-276-6842 or firstname.lastname@example.org; and Solina at email@example.com.