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University-Industry Engagement Advisor

Treat start-ups with ‘Texas hospitality’ to build strong relationships


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: June 12th, 2019

“We started the new ventures operations doing four to six IP-based based start-ups a year,” Wade Fulghum, associate director of new ventures in NC State University’s Office of Research Commercialization, told the audience during at panel session at AUTM 2019 in Austin. “Now, we’ve done 102 companies in the last seven years, building a program from scratch. There were no support mechanisms, no funding, no guidelines.”

What he did have was the desire to offer “Texas Hospitality” to new start-ups, and it’s a strategy that has served the university well. The focus on creating a strong welcome for start-ups was spurred by an unforgettable experience early on, which he described as “the catalyst” for the changes he put in place.

The start-up in question, a biomedical firm called 410 Medical, had received $2.1 million from the Triangle Venture Alliance, so Fulghum, the TTO director, and the assistant director of new ventures went out to lunch with the founder surgeon to congratulate him. Instead of sitting down for a friendly meal, however, “he pulled out a breach letter,” Fulghum recalls. “It was strongly worded, basically saying ‘you pay the fee you owe us, or we’ll send you to collections.’”

It makes sense that Fulghum was taken completely by surprise, since at that time the TTO’s administrative functions (patent, reporting, financial) were somewhat isolated from venture activity. “I realized that essentially there was a wall between founders and the folks in our office who did operations,” he explains.

What’s more, Fulghum noted, the start-up companies and TTO administrators had never met face-to-face. “The breach letter had some very strong, impersonal language, which did not bode well for a long-term relationship — which is what start-ups are,” he added. “We realized that we needed to be careful about how we communicated.”

As a result of that experience and the desire to improve start-up relationships, Fulghum and his team developed what they call the “PackStart” program, which begins with a start-up launch meeting to celebrate the successful execution of the license “and the start of a long-term relationship,” he says. The start-up’s team is invited to the office to meet with “all operations, finance, patent, licensing and new venture folks to tell us about what they’re doing,” he explains. “They get very excited about what they’re pursuing; it’s really helpful and motivating for folks.”

In addition to answering any questions the start-up may have during the celebration, the new ventures team also generates a “PackStart Letter” for the start-up, which shows all the resources available to them and spells out “what we’ll do help to them on their journey,” Fulghum says.

The letter also provides a summarized list of the key dates and milestones from the license. “For example, we’ll tell them when the first report is due, the first milestone, and so on, in simplified ‘legalese,’” Fulghum says. “It explains patent reporting, royalties, and so on. It also goes through our [support] programs.”

A detailed article on the NC State start-up “welcome” process appears in the May issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. For subscription information, CLICK HERE.

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