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Faculty Entrepreneurial Fellows

New program gives faculty the time and space to test out promising technologies

This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

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Proof-of-concept funding is great, but what if faculty innovators also have the gift of time to prove out the viability of their discoveries, the guidance of successful entrepreneurs, and the ability to take students along on the ride? This is the thinking behind the new Faculty Entrepreneurial Fellows (FEF) program in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

Jed Taylor, the director of operations of the Technology Entrepreneur Center at UIUC, says the program grew out of discussions with some of the most successful alumni from the College of Engineering. “We brought them back to campus and brainstormed about how we could get them more involved,” he explains.

The UIUC had already addressed the issue of funding for proof-of concept work, explains Lesley Millar-Nicholson, director of the Office of Technology Management at UIUC. “We pulled together $500,000 back in 2014, which effectively began what we call IPOC — the Illinois Proof of Concept Program,” she says. “We have had nine companies launched, and we have had about $46 million raised by start-up companies launched out of IPOC.”

Consequently, the focus of the discussions with alumni was what more the College of Engineering could do to help faculty innovators prove out the viability of promising innovations entirely within the university ecosystem while also providing a valuable educational experience for students, explains Taylor. “It took several meetings with the alums and some faculty members on campus, brainstorming and coming with ideas, and then we just started executing,” he says. (Also see “Ready-to-sign approach aims to open another doorway for UIUC technologies,” below.)

Time off from teaching

What developers came up with was a basic outline for the FEF program, which Taylor now directs. “What we do is give [faculty innovators] some proof-of-concept funding, a release from teaching and other obligations for 12 months, and we give them space on campus,” explains Taylor. “[The program] is built on some of the concepts we learned from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) I-Corps program. (http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/). We are an I-Corps site on campus, so we really focus on the lean start-up methodology. And then we put some curriculum and coursework around it as well, so students are involved in the process and it is really an educational experience.”

The first test of the concept involved gauging whether there was interest among faculty in applying for the program. On that score, the program exceeded expectations, with roughly three-dozen faculty members vying to be among the first FEF candidates. Of particular appeal to faculty is the 12-month release from teaching obligations, Taylor notes.

“That is a really unique part of our program and it gets a lot of interest from the faculty members,” observes Taylor. The release from teaching is approved at the department level in the College of Engineering. “When other universities ask about that [element], they are really amazed that we are able to do that.”

Student involvement part of the package

With so many applicants for the program, how do program administrators determine which projects get the green light? That’s where experienced, entrepreneurial alumni come in. Specifically, the FEF has a board of trustees that includes the leaders of technology-based companies as well as accomplished faculty entrepreneurs. They took part in reviewing the first set of applications for FEF. “We also brought in some technical experts as well from the different areas [presented by the faculty projects], and we interviewed the finalists,” notes Taylor.

The intent was to have people with outside experience in the commercial world serve as friendly but critical reviewers and judges of potentially good business ventures, notes John Thode, the president of San Jose, CA-based DigitalOptics Corporation and a member of the FEF board of trustees. “We did go through a kind of collaborative ranking process in order to select the winners,” he explains.

Thode recalls there was a lot of discussion about what the criteria should be, and he expects that there will be more fine-tuning of that aspect in the years to come. Taylor agrees, noting that reviewers looked at more than the technical or commercial potential of the projects. “Another key [consideration] was their involvement of students, so if one project just had commercial potential but there was no involvement of students, then it was certainly not rated as highly as the projects involving students,” observes Taylor.

In the first selection process, four faculty members were tapped to participate in the FEF program, two of whom began work last fall, with the remaining two starting their 12-month FEF participation in January. “Of the two projects that started in the fall, both had more than 25 students involved in their groups,” notes Taylor. “That was a key part of it.”

Once the FEF winners are selected, alumni step in to advise on the process going forward, helping to develop the business case for the technologies and providing access to their business networks, explains Thode. “I certainly spent some time trying to build connections for a couple of the different teams that I could help,” he says.

In fact, Thode’s involvement with John Rogers, a UIUC professor of materials science and engineering who is working on wearable technologies during his year in the FEF program, may go beyond the advisor stage. “I may actually join the company in some capacity in the near future,” observes Thode. “It was not really the intent of my involvement at all. It is just that one thing led to another and it was something that I found interesting.”

Supportive ecosystem nurtures projects

Relying on concepts from NSF’s I-Corps approach, FEF candidates will spend much of their 12-month FEF tenures getting out of the lab and validating their innovations with industry, notes Taylor. “They are provided with $50,000 in proof-of-concept funds. Part of that is for building a minimal viable product,” he explains. But Taylor notes that they also need to establish a value proposition and identify their customer base. “They work with our alums to help leverage their networks and go out and talk to people,” he says.

The first FEF projects haven’t reached the point of graduating from the program yet, but Taylor sees many of the projects continuing to thrive in the embrace of the innovation ecosystem that has already been developed on campus. “We are getting these projects into the NSF’s I-Corps program run here on campus, and [some] will transition into the EIR [entrepreneur in residence] program and the research park,” he explains. “We are choosing high-risk projects as well, so I anticipate that for some of these projects, they will learn that there is no market potential there.”

Part of the strategy behind the FEF program is the idea that holding onto technologies longer within the university setting offers an opportunity for further development before the real money gets spent. “There is often a rush to get technologies out and away from the university and into start-up companies because that is the thing to do,” observes Millar-Nicholson. “Our philosophy, because of the lean start-up program and because of I-Corps, is much more that we will only license when we know certain things have been done and that we are more comfortable with the readiness of the entity that is going to take [the innovation].”

The FEF program is facilitating this philosophy, adds Millar-Nicholson. “It is allowing university IP to be further developed, so it is adding value in that regard,” she says. “It is educating students, educating faculty, and I hope what is going to happen is that we have more viable start-up companies launched.”

While the results have yet to be realized, UIUC is already gearing up for the next selection process for new FEF candidates, and Taylor anticipates there will be even more faculty members vying for four FEF slots this fall. Looking farther down the road, he sees the program expanding beyond the College of Engineering. “Within a few years there will be other groups across campus that want to do this,” he says. “We have already talked to some groups that are very interested in bringing this to their colleges as well.”

Leverage connections, go bold

For other institutions interested in charting a similar path, the process will be easier if they already have some of the pieces in place, allows Taylor. “We have an ecosystem to leverage right now, and we are taking advantage of that,” he says. “If some of that stuff wasn’t in place, it would be more difficult.”

Having good relationships with alumni is also a critical piece. “[The College of Engineering] was really taking a very good read into what alumni wanted beyond the usual and customary engagement with the university,” observes Millar-Nicholson. “We have these tremendous connections. Our innovation ecosystem is talking all the time about the different programs and how they knit together, so I think those were the significant component parts.”

Thode observes that the program requires time, space and budget. But it is also important for universities to consider ways that they can accommodate innovative and entrepreneurial faculty — assuming they want to keep them in the fold. “There are a lot of professors who are leaving or have left the university environment in order to start companies,” he says. “Frankly, this is a win/win because if the professor takes out a license on the patents that were developed at the university and monetizes them, then it is good for both of them. It is good for the professor and it is good for the university.”

Beyond these essentials, it is a matter of being willing to take a chance on new programming, suggests Taylor. “Just do it. Just get started and do something bold because the other thing that has got people excited is that this is something bold and new,” he stresses. “That’s got people energized.”

Contact: Millar-Nicholson at 217-333-6807 or millar@illinois.edu; Taylor at jedt@illinois.edu; and Thode at johnthode@comcast.net. 

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