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Faculty not ready for start-up life? Try a pre-accelerator

This article appeared in the July 2023 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

Accelerators can be great for providing momentum for seed and early-stage start-ups, but for faculty and entrepreneurs with no experience at all, even getting to that point can be daunting, and that inexperience may be a roadblock to a start-up license with increasingly cautious and selective TTOs.

A pre-accelerator might be a good option in those circumstances, and Indiana University (IU) has the experience to prove it.

An innovation complex and incubator in Bloomington, IN, that IU is tapping into offers pre-accelerator programs that can help nudge faculty and students off the sidelines by providing basic education and a comfortable way to answer questions. The pre-accelerator can be thought of like a boot camp for pre-product, pre-revenue commercialization projects, says Andy Lehman, head of accelerator programming at The Mill.

“They have an idea, they probably have a business name, and maybe they’ve registered for an LLC. For the most part, it’s still a one- or two-person show,” he says. “The program offers them a safe and supportive space to start figuring things out with some programming, resources, mentors, and connections.”

The Mill recently provided a six-week pre-accelerator program specifically for Indiana University that included weekly sessions for participants to help them better understand their potential customers and what it looks like to bring a product to market. It also addressed critical questions such as whether participants want to be a CEO of their own company, and the pros and cons of turning leadership over to an experienced business builder.

The content in the program was intentionally foundational to make it accessible to this group, avoiding more complex material that might be appropriate in a typical accelerator, Lehman explains.

“We get a lot of life sciences coming out of IU, so we worked with those researchers on translating these really amazing [innovations] into language that was accessible and understandable for a general audience,” Lehman says. “If they’re pitching their business to a bunch of investors, the investors aren’t going to have the slightest idea of what peptides do in certain situations and why your peptide is better than any other peptides.”

Eight teams of faculty members participated, some in groups and some as individuals. Pre-accelerator staff met individually each week with the teams.

The projects were wide ranging, with everything from complex life sciences to one from the Jacobs School of Music that involved a riser for visiting cellists to amplify sound, Lehman says. The teams presented their projects during demo days, and participants worked each week to build pitch decks. At the end of the program, they pitched to two investors who provided feedback.

The participant with the cello project went on to compete in two pitch competitions and gained about $20,000 in investments for his small company.

The Mill staff found that most of the faculty were not inclined to become CEOs, so they benefitted from conversations about how to look for the right leadership to take their companies forward.

“The university setting is very insular for students and faculty, so getting exposed to resources, and a network outside of the university setting to help them move their business idea forward was incredibly helpful,” Lehman says. “It opened that door to all of the other contacts and people who want to help them and see them succeed. That was a huge thing.”

Contact Lehman at andy@dimensionmill.org.


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