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Business coach acts as linchpin in integrated tech transfer effort

The article below appeared in the April 2009 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here to subscribe.

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In some cases, it takes a village to commercialize an innovation. Within the “village” surrounding the North Texas technology hub Arlington, the “villagers” are the University of Texas at Arlington and its TTO; the Arlington Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Innovation; its Arlington Technology Incubator (ATI), a joint project of the school and the Chamber; and another Center subsidiary, the Venture Innovation Partnership (VIP), a student-driven, university-affiliated organization that provides market research and market viability information to the ATI.

Of course, any time you have multiple decisionmakers, you have the potential for conflicting or overlapping agendas and operating styles. So the collaborators — who hope to expand their reach beyond the Arlington area to become the go-to city for technology commercialization in the whole region — have hired a “business coach” to coordinate everyone’s efforts at shepherding innovations through the tech transfer process, across virtually all the participating and interlocking organizations.

The goals of the public-private tech transfer program are pretty much what you’d expect from such a project. “We expect increases in SBIR/STTR funding, start-up companies, industry-sponsored funding and licensing agreements,” says Kelsey R. Downum, senior associate vice president for research in UTA’s Office of the Vice President for Research. “The business coach is an independent consultant, but works in partnership with the university administration — that is, the technology management office and the VPR’s office — to review, evaluate and coach selected technologies and their inventors.”

The business coach will also work closely with the Arlington Chamber’s matrix of commercialization-focused operating units. Under the umbrella of the Center for Innovation subsidiary are the ATI, the VIP and three additional sources of expertise and advice for potential start-ups, plus an entrepreneur-oriented affiliate that also helps companies grow.

For one, there’s the Stakeholders’ Network, made up of professionals in the region who have start-up skills and experience — bankers, attorneys, and entrepreneurs. The newly hired business coach “has those experts as a network he can refer potential start-ups to if they need specialized coaching in a particular industry or market segment,” explains Center for Innovation director Sergio Bento. The services they provide are offered at a considerable discount to qualified client companies-to-be.

The Center also recently took over the North Texas Technology Council, he reports, a membership organization representing most of the counties in that part of the state focusing on state and federal advocacy efforts. Then there’s the Center for Entrepreneurship, an affiliated agency of 13 companies that provide services for entrepreneurs. “We can assist any small business in any industry,” Bento says. That Center is in the process of developing a second incubator operation aimed at help existing small businesses get bigger. The ATI, by contrast, incubates start-ups in targeted industries.

All the operations are housed on three floors in the same campus building. Each component of this matrix of organizations assists the others, although each has its own distinct mission and roles. “Each can independently advise a university committee should a disagreement occur,” Downum explains. The business coach, he adds, advises on, rather than approves, technologies for patenting or start-ups for entry into the ATI. The university TTO stays focused on negotiatiating deals and managing IP protection.

After spending three years putting the pieces of this puzzle together, “we’re starting to see the results,” Bento says. “The technology development community is starting to get the message that we have a network in place to help it commercialize its innovations…. We’re succeeding in creating a technology-driven culture in North Texas.”

Business coach getting his feet wet

The new business coach, Fred Patterson, was recently contracted with to help coordinate this network and keep the various components working together toward commercialization.

The ATI has provided space for him to open a second office on campus so he can be closer to the ventures he’ll help launch. Patterson’s background is in strategic planning, and includes a stint as director of that discipline for a Fortune 500 company. He’s also been a coach for entities seeking Small Business Innovation Research grants, which is how he originally got involved with the university.

He’ll work primarily with the ATI, as both a coach and as a “project manager” — where the “project” is a start-up that makes it to the incubation stage, Bento comments. A researcher who wants his or her new venture to be tended to by Patterson and the ATI team goes through what Bento calls “a filtering process,” which starts with a formal application followed by completion of a course in entrepreneurship. The would-be entrepreneur then makes his or her case to a panel of judges that helps Bento’s team determine which companies are good candidates for ATI incubation.

Some of Patterson’s specific duties will be initial interviews with researchers and then development of growth milestones for start-ups. Indeed, how well the companies he coaches meet their designated milestones is one of the key ways Patterson’s performance will be assessed. “Measuring the success of the business coach is very specific,” says Bento, “and it’s based on his abilities in project management.”

Patterson will also work closely with the students at VIP as a “coach and consultant,” Bento says, helping to evaluate and refine the technologies. “We have a huge portfolio of research sitting on our shelves,” he comments. “There’s a lot of evaluating to be done.”

Patterson’s responsibilities also include “interacting with faculty — and possibly visiting their labs — and evaluating technologies being developed there,” Downum reports. “Faculty members are often focused on basic research that leads to academic publications, and so they often don’t spend much time thinking about practical applications of their research and technologies. We hope, through interaction with the ATI coach, to provide faculty researchers with a resource that can expose them to thinking about new applications of their technology.” That, he adds, may require Patterson to bring in industry partners to help identify and assist in prototype development and other commercialization functions.

Patterson’s coaching starts long before an incubation decision is made. “Inventors often think they have an idea that will appeal to a market, but whether it’s viable or not, they haven’t figured out yet,” he says. “And most of them don’t have a clue how to go about doing that. In fact, most ventures fail because the inventors haven’t figured out the market viability of their inventions. They just think they have a product that someone’s going to be willing to buy.” His role, he adds, is making sure budding entrepreneurs have their proverbial ducks in a row. “I’ll help them refine their business plans,” he says.

A holistic approach

The business coach’s role will likely begin after the tech transfer office has given a technology its blessing for commercialization activity. “The crew at the OTM will look at an idea and determine if it’s meritorious enough for the university to invest in,” he says. “If the university feels it’s worthwhile, I’ll mentor the researcher into putting some thoughts together, working with the OTM on that early assessment.”

The next step: applying for the incubator. Once the OTM and the VIP “sign off” on a technology, it qualifies for the ATI, which provides the infrastructure necessary for actual commercialization to take place. New ventures can also come to the incubator from the community at large, Patterson adds. In either scenario, he serves as something of a gatekeeper and project manager.

Once a company is tucked into the incubator, Patterson says, he acts as an impartial advisor. “Every company needs advisors who aren’t emotionally involved in the creation of marketing hype,” he comments. “The worst thing a company can do is believe its own hype. All start-ups need a dose of realism.” Toward that end, he pushes start-ups “to create a board of advisors, made up of people who are interested in the technology and in innovation,” but who are also dispassionate about the specific prospects of the new venture. Patterson will serve as an ex officio member of every such board created at an incubated company.

The whole point is integrating the expertise of the parties behind the business coach program. “We follow a business model that focuses on a holistic approach,” Bento explains, “where academia and the business community have the opportunity to receive first-class assistance. As a true partnership, the VIP becomes a source of, or entrance point to, the incubation initiative at ATI. The business coach becomes the link for a smooth transition and continued support for ATI clients’ business development.”

Adds Patterson: “Business consultants have been around for years, but this is the first time I’ve seen anything constructed like this. It would not work without the vision of the Center for Innovation and the university. It’s their ‘let’s work together’ mentality that’s going to make this work.”

Contact Bento at 817-543-4295 or sbento@arlingtontx.com; Downum at 817-272-1021 or downumk@exchange.uta.edu; and Patterson at 817-788-0522 or FPatterson@CFcoach.com.


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