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Collaborating on a Whiteboard: Faculty Founders of Tough Tech Companies


Today, we’re launching a new program from The Engine: Whiteboard. This program is designed to convene academic faculty members who are considering involvement in entrepreneurial ventures spun out of their labs. It brings together like-minded peers and potential advisors for engaging content, Q&A with experienced academic founders, semi-structured group discussion, and collaborative working sessions. The purpose is to provide frameworks and resources for translating academic research out of their labs into new companies and further connect entrepreneurial faculty. The program focuses on Tough Tech: transformative technology that solves the world’s most important challenges through the convergence of breakthrough science, engineering, and leadership. Finding community with other faculty founders is one way to help work through the challenges of balancing these responsibilities.

Faculty members make up a quarter of the founders from The Engine portfolio and take on a wide range of roles at the earliest stages of companies. Across different team configurations, faculty founders are often critical to the successful launch of a Tough Tech company, and many continue to directly support their growth as well. Given their expertise, extensive networks, and multidimensional role within the innovation ecosystem, faculty founders are truly a special cohort. They often have a personal connection and intrinsic curiosity to the critical problems addressed by the technologies emerging from their labs. At the same time, faculty members face an enormous demand on their time in their “day” job as stewards of research programs, as teachers, and as mentors with significant departmental and fundraising duties, often combined with obligations to their professional fields. Whiteboard is a chance to connect with peers balancing the same priorities and learn from others who’ve been there before.

In our conversations, we find entrepreneurial faculty who have founded at least one company take special care in thinking through three issues when seeking to translate research out of their lab into a startup company. Not surprisingly, these same three issues are top of mind for most first-time faculty founders and form the basis for discussions at Whiteboard.

The first major item is identifying who will join you and recruiting an entrepreneurial team to lead the commercialization of that research. As one serial faculty entrepreneur concluded: “There will be important decisions, challenges, and pivots in the life of a company that are impossible to predict so the ultimate outcome will rest on how well the team will respond and execute.” Interestingly, multi-time academic founders often adjust and broaden who they recruit into their research labs and what projects they suggest to trainees.

The second issue is deciding when a technology developed in the academic enterprise is ready for translation out of the lab and into the startup enterprise– it is possible to be too early, and we have also seen a few examples of too late.

Lastly, these faculty seek to cultivate networks and knowledge related to how to finance the company. We cover the basics of financing, and the funding environment at large, as well as sources of non-dilutive capital for start-ups, the different types of investors, how different investors and even investment firms operate, what their motivations are, and what are the key elements to successfully fundraising–particularly from venture capitalists.

Whiteboard is an open space, hosted by The Engine, to scale conversations and peer exchanges that mainly happen today one-on-one. Today, Whiteboard is framed by the three elements of human, intellectual, and financial capital, and importantly, is designed to facilitate the sharing of experiences and perspectives of founders, spanning from serial faculty entrepreneurs to first-time founders. We add specific case studies to Whiteboard and share data that we have collected over our years in working with Tough Tech companies. We hope it is a springboard for Tough Tech faculty founders to build community and knowledge, accelerating and supporting each other on their journeys to commercialization.

For faculty interested in learning more and/or joining our next one-day program cohort, please register here.