Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Patience, creativity required to find top CEO talent for university start-ups


By David Schwartz
Published: August 17th, 2016

People involved in nurturing university start-ups will tell you the toughest challenge they face is finding capable talent to come in and take the reins from the scientific founders. Such a move is almost always essential to giving these ventures the kind of launch that brings in investors and gives the fledgling companies a shot at success, they maintain. However, successfully building a business based on new technology requires a specific skill set that is especially hard to find, especially when there is little to no compensation beyond potential equity in the company.

“It is a huge issue for communities where there isn’t necessarily a plethora of entrepreneurs, and certainly where it is likely there aren’t a lot of entrepreneurs or serial entrepreneurs coming from emerging industries,” explains Marnie LaVigne, PhD, the president and CEO of Buffalo, NY-based LaunchNY, a non-profit organization that spends a lot of time helping start-ups throughout Western New York connect with capable leadership.

LaVigne observes that high-growth start-ups need three things — the technology or opportunity they are taking advantage of, the talent to grow these companies, and capital. “So most of these technology commercialization scenarios are such that you are only starting with one leg of the stool,” she explains. “The talent and the capital are the other two legs, so without a person who can already see the full landscape of the many, many things that need to be done to get this high-growth business off the ground, you are left with someone who is focused more on the product or service, and typically that is the IP-based technology.”

Finding a CEO who understands the big picture and can secure the resources required to do everything from customer discovery to producing a fully realized commercial product or service is critical, observes LaVigne. “That is actually a complex process that requires more than I think a lot of our founder-CEOs, who are more technologists or scientists than they are business people, often appreciate,” she explains.

How do you get around all the barriers involved with finding willing leaders to helm these new companies? LaVigne believes you have to take a hybrid approach that includes helping to grow existing leaders, but also recruiting needed expertise. To assist with that, LaunchNY supplies mentors who can help guide the individuals who are serving as the business leads of these companies, providing an important bridge to more experienced talent, she explains. “We actually look to supply that [leadership role] on a short-term basis and assist the company in identifying what kind of talent they actually need to bring in.”

Dan Hasler, the president and chief entrepreneurial officer of the Purdue Research Foundation in West Lafayette, IN, says his primary problem in filling start-up leadership positions is geography. “Purdue is a wonderful place, but for 100 miles in any direction is corn,” he explains. “We still have the same mission to get commercialized as much of the organic technology that is coming out of Purdue as possible, either by license or start-up, but we don’t have the donut of out-of-work or in-between serial entrepreneurs like what you might find at Stanford or MIT.”

As an experiment, Hasler has formed a partnership with YourEncore, an Indianapolis, IN-based company that provides experts-on-demand for the pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer goods industries.

“These are 5,000 or 6,000 largely retired executives living all over the world, but mostly in the U.S., who have been-there-done-that, and they have retired from their first careers,” explains Hasler. “By and large, they are not only as smart as they will ever be in their lives, but financially they are usually pretty secure, so they are able to live the lifestyle of an entrepreneur.”

Marrying YourEncore’s base of expertise with Purdue’s base of innovators is like putting chocolate with peanut butter, according to Hasler. “I’ve got all these faculty, young people and PhDs, and all these patents and technologies. I licensed 145 technologies last year alone,” he explains. “And [the experts at YourEncore] are looking for opportunities to participate, either as mentors, board members, part-time CEOs, temporary CEOs or full-time CEOs — for equity, hopefully, more often than salary.”

A detailed article on strategies for finding experienced CEO-level talent for university start-ups appears in the August issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article – along with 9+ years of best practices, case studies, and success strategies for TTOs in the publication’s subscriber-only archive, CLICK HERE.   

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