To further bridge the gap between the lab and market, the University of Minnesota has initiated a startup incubator, Discovery Launchpad. The program will provide coaching and support to researchers looking to commercialize new technologies created through their work.
Conceived by the Venture Center, which is part of the UMN Technology Commercialization department, Discovery Launchpad will leverage University-associated resources including MIN-Corps, MN-REACH, and the Business Advisory Group.
“The Discovery Launchpad helps researchers explore what is needed in commercializing a University invention via a startup—namely, understanding the business model, market demand, competition, and the resources necessary to be successful,” says Russ Straate, associate director of the Venture Center.
The incubator program begins with an assessment, in which company founders and researchers meet with advisors to create a customized plan of action for marketing their discoveries, and to determine if the startup is ready for the program.
“Before we put the time and energy into supporting them,” Straate explains, “we want to make sure they are at a point in the development [and ready to commit] to a business… that they are prepared to do what needs to be done to get through the Launchpad, and be out as a startup and be successful.”
Approved participants then receive coaching on creating business, marketing, and sales plans, as well as on financial management and how to form a business pitch. Coaches include five external advisors with a varied experience — from startup executives from a variety of industries, to professionals with experience at major companies including Cargill, 3M, and Medtronic.
Straate says timelines for program completion will vary depending on each individual company, though will generally range from weeks to a few months. At the close of the coaching and development phase, the startups are launched. They will continue to receive support for up to two years.
“By offering individualized advising from experienced executives and entrepreneurs,” says Straate, “we can improve the success of new startup companies based on U of M research, bring new technologies into the market, and increase the overall return on investment for research.”
The Discovery Launchpad builds off the Venture Center’s previous work. Since its inception in 2006, the center has launched more than 140 startups based on discoveries by university faculty, staff, and students. The number of companies launched from the center has ramped up to between 15 to 20 annually, says Straate. This recent uptick was what led to the creation of Discovery Launchpad. The program kicked off with a soft launch last July with eight companies signed on.
The program’s formal debut comes just after university researchers weathered affects from the government shutdown. In the midst of the 35-day shutdown, University spokesperson Devin Henry said researchers had accrued about $10 million in unreimbursed expenses.
As the government and research circumstances return to normal, the Discovery Launchpad’s first round of participants are nearing the end of their time in the program. Some companies are close to completion, and all are expected to graduate by the end of this fiscal year.
Existing participants include Novaclade, which has created a solution for managing disease-carrying mosquitos; Anatomi, which is developing a stem cell research tool; and Darcy Solutions, which is working to improve the process for installing ground source heat pumps for residential and commercial heating and cooling.
“It’s been extremely helpful brainstorming and pressure testing our ideas with the Discovery Launchpad team,” says Brian Larson, co-founder and CEO of Darcy Solutions. “Their playbook made it clear how much ‘we didn’t know we didn’t know’… [Now] we feel confident we’re on the right track and are taking the right steps to position our business for success.”
Straate says new startups will be brought into the program as they are ready, and he expects Discovery Launchpad will have around 8 to 12 companies in the program at any one time.
With this new program, the state of Minnesota stands to gain something, as well. A study conducted last year by Pittsburgh-based national research firm Tripp Umbach found that the University of Minnesota’s research work made a $74.2 million impact on the state in fiscal year 2017.
“When [our research teams] create these inventions, sometimes the best way for us to get those out into the commercial market to better mankind, to get them out to be something of value, is to create a startup company,” says Straate. “The Launchpad will be a key ingredient [for that]. I’m excited that the university is stepping up and helping us make this happen.”
Some of the Discovery Launchpad participants may even find it easier to attract financing. Located on the university’s campus is Atland Ventures, a student-run venture capital firm with an eye toward helping student entrepreneurs get their ideas out into the market.