Tech Transfer University Reporter

Tips for recruiting your next great start-up CEO

By David Schwartz
Published: December 3rd, 2013

Too many start-ups have failed or stalled because they lack leadership talent. The problem is even more acute for university start-ups, since the CEO must mesh with the faculty inventor as well as the campus culture – an environment that some business pros find difficult and frustrating. 

In short, it takes a special individual to successfully lead a university start-up: someone who’s passionate about the technology, can work collegially with faculty “stars,” has a get-it -done work ethic, can focus on long-term value rather than short-term compensation, and has an eye always focused on the upward trajectory of the company.

But why would a qualified executive be interested in taking over a university spin out or spinning a technology out of a university?

University spin-out opportunities really do have some attractive elements, and you have to be prepared to really sell these as good opportunities to the entrepreneurs.  Here are a couple of key points:

  1. If the technology has a significant base of research, it typically represents a passion of a faculty member, or group of faculty members — something that’s really developed out of their entire career and their thinking. This makes a really strong foundation for a start-up company.
  2. The university-faculty affiliation, the support that the technologies get from the university, the fact that patent work has already been done, and that ongoing research can be done by the university are all attractive elements. 
  3. Experienced entrepreneurs know that it really takes a lot of work to develop IP.  Building off of something that’s been developed at a university creates a great opportunity for them.

Network, network, network

handshakeYour A-level leader won’t just fall into your lap, so make sure to tap into these local resources to find solid recommendations:

  • Business and patent attorneys
  •  Other entrepreneurs
  • Local business groups
  • Local investors
  • Alumni networks
  • CEO-in-residence programs

We’ve got the what and where… how about the who?

Once you’ve brought in a number of candidates, it’s time to apply some key criteria to selecting the right leader. One of the driving factor in that decision is finding a leader who has had some success in the entrepreneurial world and achieved some sort of an exit. They have some money in the bank, an ability to go without salary for some amount of time, and they’re really hungry for that next big win. 

Experience and eagerness are not enough to bring your start up out of the woods. A candidate with fundraising experience is a big plus, as is being easy to work with. Look for a personality that meshes well with your inventor and TTO staff.  Also, be on the lookout for any patterns of litigation, bankruptcy,   or other negative feedback.

Remember, don’t dilute your mission for anyone. Successful startups are really, really hard. But, this mixture of elements makes the university spin-out opportunity attractive to experienced entrepreneurs, and your start-up will have a solid chance at survival with this type of leader at the helm.

NOTE: More in-depth advice is provided in the archived webinar, Securing Senior Level Talent for University Start-Ups and How to Best Structure CEO Compensation, which is available on DVD, On-Demand Video and PDF Transcript. CLICK HERE for more information.

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Technology Transfer Tactics would like to thank for these speakers for their valuable insight and compilation of data:

  • Heather A. Steinman, PhD, Senior Associate Director of Licensing and Senior Advisor to UPstart, Center for Technology Transfer at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Michael D. Poisel, MBA, Program Director of the UPstart program, Center for Technology Transfer at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Gerard Eldering – Founder and President, InnovateTech Ventures

Visit for more information on how to hasten and streamline the commercialization process, as well as maximize the financial benefits of that process for your organization.

Posted under: Tech Transfer University Reporter

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