Five years ago, the Cockrell School of Engineering brought in a bold tech visionary who has made it his mission to create and inspire innovation and entrepreneurship at UT Austin. Bob Metcalfe, inventor of the Ethernet and the 2003 recipient of the National Medal of Technology, spends his days mentoring faculty, students, alumni and others as they take their ideas and research and turn them into startups.
“At UT Austin, and at universities across the country, we are sitting on a massive under-exploited resource — ideas and creativity,” said Metcalfe, who holds the title of Professor of Innovation at UT Austin. “I believe that with a modest change in university culture, faculty can make a significant impact by commercializing their research using startups as the vehicle for commercialization.”
Metcalfe is aiming to create a university that is focused on identifying the research and ideas that can be commercialized, bringing them out of labs and spinning out companies that enable faculty and students to make the greatest impact.
“We are working to reshape the research university of today into an innovation university of tomorrow — or what I like to call an ‘inoversity’,” he said. “At an inoversity, when a professor creates a startup, it is celebrated — and valued — rather than being viewed mostly as a conflict of interest.”
Metcalfe also serves as the faculty director of the Cockrell School’s Innovation Center, which, along with managing director Louise Epstein and their team of entrepreneurs-in-residence, works closely with professors and others to mentor them through the startup process.
The Innovation Center has expanded its programs to foster professor and student startups. Every month, Metcalfe’s Startup Studio features three professors and their new companies. And just this past spring, the Innovation Center launched an Innovation Grants program that provides critical funding to bridge the gap between research and commercialization.
The Innovation Center helps to mentor and advance new companies in their pre-commercialization stage, assisting the “protostartups,” as Metcalfe refers to them, with their plans and facilitating strategic connections that lead to new partnerships and funding opportunities. And he doesn’t want to stop there. “Universities have been inclined to send startups to campus and end their support at just the wrong time,” he said. “With increased funding of these protostartups, and with our new vision for an inoversity, I am hoping we can change this trend and allow our protostartups to stay and mature longer.”
Metcalfe’s Recipe for Advancing the Inoversity
“We have 3,000 faculty members at our university, and a surprisingly small number consider starting a company. Many are interested but don’t know where to start.”
Mentor, Mentor, Mentor
“We established the Longhorn Startup Program to educate, inspire and assist undergraduate students and their startups. But we now also support faculty, graduate students and post-docs. We have a broad and talented community, and there are many mentoring resources (in addition to the Innovation Center) that people can take advantage of on campus, including the Austin Technology Incubator, Texas Venture Labs, the new Catalyst Program in the Dell Medical School and more.”
Connect UT with Austin
“We hold a monthly Startup Studio with professors from across the university who have launched or are in the process of starting companies. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce hosts the studio, and we invite experts and entrepreneurs across Austin to listen to professors present their technology and startup plans and to give them feedback and advice.”
Bridge the ‘Valley of Death’ with Gap Funding
“We’ve detected a ‘valley of death’ between successful university research and the funding required for commercializing technology. Potential investors look for the results of testing, prototyping, customer discovery, etc., in order to assess whether the protostartups represent lucrative opportunities. The Innovation Center now provides gap funding to faculty in the form of Innovation Grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 so professors can take the necessary steps to be investor-ready. Awardees not only receive the financial support, but they benefit from the ongoing mentorship, advice, connections and resources that we offer.”
Leverage Our Talent
“We don’t want professors to start companies and then leave the university; we want them to keep teaching and doing research. A lot of professors worry that they don’t have time to start a company, engage in research and teach effectively. We believe that their graduating students and post-docs are an underutilized resource, and that they can run the companies. You want your students to become the chief technology officers, CEOs and founding members of your companies. This helps create jobs for them, and it allows professors to serve on their startups’ boards or as consultants, so they can continue their teaching and research and work on the next startup.
Set Aggressive Goals
“I recently asked how many startups were spun out of the university last year, and I was told there were about six. Based on the fact that we feature 24 protostartups in our Startup Studio every year, we believe there are many more professors and students just waiting for the right guidance and opportunity. With this number in mind, and now that we’re even more active in our efforts to raise money for Innovation Grants, I want our Innovation Center to have the capacity to be an effective resource for 24 startups in the coming year.”