The Office of Innovation and Corporate Partnerships is focused on integrating the university’s efforts in technology commercialization, entrepreneurship, and corporate partnerships for sponsored research and education.

two faculty talking in the Bizzell Memorial Library

Author: andrew

“Will the Dog Eat the Dog Food”

I don’t believe I’m breaking any news here, but starting any business is hard!  Starting a business around a new, unproven, first of its kind, disruptive technology that either doesn’t have a market equivalent or asks customers to change their status quo is even more challenging.  Doing so as a first-time entrepreneur coming out of a university, well you get the picture.  But over the last ten years that I have been involved in the Technology Transfer space, universities across the country have made truly phenomenal progress in the resources and programs made available to support these fledgling startups as they prepare to leave the nest. 

One of the key tenants of these early-stage startup development programs has been that of Customer Discovery.  Programs like Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad, which became the fundamental curriculum of the NSF, and later NIH, I-Corps programs forced the reorientation away from the technology and its research and development, to instead determine “Does this have a market and is there a customer who will buy it?”  Here at the University of Oklahoma we have implemented similar concepts in multiple programs we have offered over the years, first in partnership with i2e and their new venture course, our own Venture Fellows program, and today much of the Market Discovery Phase of the Growth Fund still relies on these principles.  However, while seemingly revolutionary, the reality is programs such as these are in fact the application of the scientific method to the activity of starting a business, but now instead of benchtops and beakers, the answers lie outside of the building and the testing performed is talking to potential customers. 

So why do we do this?  Like any hard challenge, starting a business, is about, RISK. And so much of programs such as these are about de-risking the business concept and determining if there will be good product-market fit.  In addition to translational research activities to mature the technology, we can determine what the market will look like, who may buy the product and even establish early-stage partnerships and distribution channels. 

But, no matter how well prepared, there comes a moment when you launch into the void and must have faith that all you have learned and done will allow you to soar. I have the opportunity to simultaneously serve as adjunct faculty in the Price College of Business here at OU, and every semester I show a lecture by Guy Kawasaki regarding the top mistakes made by entrepreneurs.  He talks about building the structure of an internet pet supply company, but the most critical aspect always comes down to “Will the Dog Eat the Dog Food”, because without this the rest doesn’t matter. This is the moment of a young company’s greatest test, will someone pay for what I am selling, and the last thing needed is a stone around their neck as they jump from the nest. 

Unfortunately, that’s just what can happen when at launch, as a startup must execute a license to the technology from the university.  There are several reasons this action of licensing is needed, securing rights for investment, elevating conflicts of interest and employment obligations, protecting parties from liability just to name a very few, but, the reality is these licenses come with a cost.  There is financial consideration, performance milestones and patent obligations in these licenses that, while fair and necessary, can be a burden to a young company.  To me this begged the question, why if we are going to invest in the support of the pre-launch lifecycle of the company, at this the most vulnerable moment, would we stop? 

To this end, the Office of Technology Commercialization has recently launched a new Limited Use Licensing Model.  First this model is not applicable to all technologies or companies.  The goal of the model is to provide a mechanism by which a company can conduct the ultimate customer discovery, SALES.  Therefore, a technology must be at a stage of development where it would be ready to be offered for sale and sufficiently mature that a party would want to buy and use it.  In the university environment, this would be most common in things such as software, research tools, cell lines or materials that could be a component of larger products or systems.  While not free of commercial terms, there is often reduced fees and the license is limited to a preset number of sales and a relatively short timeframe, typically a year or less.  Once sales objectives are met a full license can be negotiated if desired. Additionally, this is not for projects that need continued development or large scale investment, but rather the demonstration of traction that can accelerate them in some way, or nudge them out of the nest if you will.

While early, I’m happy to say we have executed two licenses in the past months under this model and have learned immense amounts about the market demand, one good one bad, in that short time.  Therefore, if you are interested in learning more about this model, think you might have a technology that could benefit from this type of customer discovery, or just know where we can find some hungry dogs, please feel free to reach out to OTC, because we got some new chow to try!

If I Don’t Speak Your Language and You Don’t Speak Mine, Let’s Make Our Own

When I proudly returned to The University of Oklahoma, eight years ago, I had little idea of what to expect and even less of how to make an impact.  Every industry, much less individual organization, has norms based on commonly held values and experiences, and having come from the private sector with no previous experience working in academia, I fully knew this would take time to learn; a reminder I was given on my “first” day, March 3rd, 2014, when my new boss called me the night before to inform me not to come to the office the next day, the University was closed for a “Snow Day”, my first since high school. 

That didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of people, on both sides, who were willing to tell me how the two cultures differed, but after listening to a few and ignoring a lot, it seemed to come down to two main points, time and money, it always does.  Often corporations work on timescales built around artificial deadlines, such as the next quarter’s profits.  While this focus has benefits, it often means sacrificing long term strategy and goals for the sake of immediate returns.  This can become particularly dangerous when it comes to solving big problems with disruptive solutions, a reason startup companies are often responsible for the next generation products rather than the established market leaders.  Universities, while perceived as slower, have in fact found mechanisms to nurture creativity and big broad thinking; however, this can come at a cost, literally.  Learning and trying new things means failure is expected, and with failure comes financial costs which may not be recouped.  Companies on the other hand are typically extremely efficient at growing sources of profit and eliminating sources of undue cost.  What it seemed to boil down to was that the two groups saw value as derived from two different sources, Universities’ – Knowledge and Companies’ – Financial Returns.

This type of divide is not unique to these entities, and both are correct for their circumstances, however working in an office, Technology Commercialization, whose goal is two cross this divide, a solution was needed.  Trying to translate one unit of value into another is possible and done, anyone remember the money exchange booth in the international terminal of the airport, but often requires a leap of faith and a lot of speculation.  “Our Intellectual Property will be a key competitive advantage on this yet to be developed product and will be worth your upfront and continued development investment” or “Disclosure will result in returns from licensing or new research collaborations”, are both possibly true, but understandably challenging to convince their respective audiences.  Therefore, rather than a direct translation, a common language or goal is needed.  To me this is best defined by one word – IMPACT.

They may say it slightly differently, but both groups are looking to have an IMPACT.  At their core universities desire to better society through education and creative activities.  Companies look for both broad and fanatical adoption of their products by customers.  Universities work to solve big far horizon problems with novel solutions, and companies are built on years of efficient practices of delivering solutions for which customers are willing to pay.  Both are critical in maximizing Impact.  Whether it’s a new therapeutic to treat an orphan disease, improving storm warning lead times, or delivering real-time interventions to help people quit smoking, commercializing products that impact customers, and collectively society, require both approaches.  Thus while the cultures may differ, the goal is the same, and it is the complimentary competencies that allow us all to have IMPACT!

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