Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Venture mentoring expands to San Antonio as UT system bolsters start-up support


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: November 11th, 2020

A detailed article on UT San Antonio’s Venture Mentoring Service appears in the October issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, click here.

San Antonio has a long history of cooperation and collaboration, especially in the biomedical and life science community. Executive leaders from this community interested in supporting new companies are a rich potential resource for the newly launched Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) San Antonio.

VMS San Antonio fills a critical need for mentoring start-up companies as a “what’s next” to start-ups licensing University of Texas (UT) technology. “We no sooner get the technology out than we’ve got to go work on the next one,” says John Fritz, associate director of technology commercialization at UT Health SA. “We can’t do a lot to personally mentor all these spinoffs because it’s like the old skit from the Lucille Ball show: the workers can’t keep up with the conveyor belt of pies…. I see the mentors as a proxy for not having a full management team while building your company. If you don’t have that advice early on, you usually die on the vine.”

VMS San Antonio is the fourth VMS program running within the UT System. It is a response to a question posed by UT System’s senior advisor to the chancellor and chief talent and innovation officer, Julie Goonewardene, asking for feedback about what would be the most valuable services the UT System could provide for its technology transfer offices. One answer came back loud and clear: Most TTOs wanted assistance with providing conflict-free, unbiased advice and guidance for their entrepreneurs.

In partnership with UT institutions, the UT System started a mentoring program called Texas Venture Connect (TVC), based on Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s groundbreaking Venture Mentoring Service, which promotes:

  • A statement of principles that guides the mentor-mentee relationship;
  • Team-based mentoring;
  • An emphasis on nurturing of the entrepreneur as well as the venture;
  • Building a mentor community;
  • Providing practical, actionable advice; and
  • Leveraging technology and virtual meetings when necessary.

VMS San Antonio has customized the TVC structure to fit the needs of its local community.

MIT offers outreach training for universities that want to adopt their program. In February 2019, four technology transfer leaders from UTSA and UT Health SA became the most recent UT System participants. The group included Fritz along with Christine Burke, PhD, MBA, director of commercialization and technology transfer at UTSA; Andrei Zorilescu, UTSA technology licensing associate; and Sean Thompson, UT Health SA senior technology licensing specialist. After their training, this leadership group set out to create VMS San Antonio, a collaborative program of the two universities.

That collaboration — between an academic university and a medical university — makes perfect sense. As Fritz explains, “We have a lot of frontline clinicians who develop new medical devices from their patient experience. They need an engineer. Also, we have a joint center for drug development. So, we have different things that bring us together with our technologies.”

Having launched in June 2020, VMS San Antonio now has six companies engaged, and 12 mentors on board.

The VMS San Antonio program isn’t available to the general community; it is currently only open to established ventures using UTSA and UT Health SA technologies with either an option or license agreement. “They’ve already gone through some other steps along the way,” says Fritz. “We have different things at both universities that we’re trying to do in an overall systematic way to help ventures be more successful.”

For example, UT Health SA has TechNovum, an accelerator that helps prepare their early-stage companies to clearly identify and articulate the business value of their technology to a specific market segment. If that value appears sufficient to support a business, it teaches them how to position the company to raise capital.

For its part, UTSA asks prospective ventures to put themselves through its NSF I-Corps program before applying to VMS San Antonio. “In general, we want companies to go through whatever accelerator program makes the most sense for their technology,” says Burke. “We have some medical companies, but we also have cybersecurity. We also have engineering-based companies, and a lot of software. So, the accelerators and the business plan competitions and groups where ventures go, either while enrolled in VMS San Antonio or not, will be pretty broad.”

“We license university technology, and we want diligence,” adds Fritz. “We want someone to take it and get it out there. And if they don’t, we get it back, and we find a new entity.”

“When a venture is part of this program, the expectation is that the company will seek guidance from the mentors, increasing the probability of success and thus the likelihood the technology actually gets used,” Thompson comments. “While we encourage the founding faculty member to leverage participation in VMS San Antonio to improve their skills, the main purpose of VMS San Antonio is to increase the likelihood of successful commercialization. Improving faculty entrepreneurship skills is a bonus.”

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