Maybe you’re a leader of a mature company, looking for new ideas that will inspire — and provoke — a dying, old industry to action. Maybe you’re a founder of a young company working on a moonshot, fighting for relevance, for market share, for survival. You may think, “How am I going to do this? How am I going to find that idea, that technology, that person, that process, duct-tape them all together, and make it all fly? Has anyone even done this before?”
I want you to meet a group of people who have been in your shoes. People who create ideas, companies, and even CEOs like you, with the regularity of an academic calendar. These people have tried, failed, laughed, and cried — many times — in conceiving and bringing to market the crazy, but necessary, new ideas no one else believes in. They know the brutal reality of what innovation means through their own hard-won experience.
The Professor, the Startup, and You
Universities are great places for new ideas and new technologies, which these days are spinning out into new startup companies at a furious pace. But how do you start to engage a university, and the startups it spawns? How do you find an entry point into this growing, but sometimes overwhelming, output of new ideas?
I want to give you a single, simple tactic for engaging with a university: meet professors, meet the startup companies the professors’ laboratories spin out, and bring both of them to meet your company.
By listening carefully to the chatter among professors, startups, and your own organization — and by being a part of that discourse yourself — you may be able to find that spark of innovation by applying the lessons they have already fought so hard to learn.
Understand this triad of connections to see how ideas, people, money and capital, intellectual property, business processes, all flow and intertwine among themselves. By listening carefully to the chatter among professors, startups, and your own organization — and by being a part of that discourse yourself — you may be able to find that spark of innovation by applying the lessons they have already fought so hard to learn.
Professors teach and conduct research, and some of that applied research forms the basis for new companies. While I would love to tell you that the professor is the source of all ideas at a university, and that they are the shining light behind every new spinout company, that’s just not true.
MIT Professor Chris Schuh is a world-renowned material scientist and metallurgist who knows his field and specialty well, and if you want to learn about new alloys and metals, you should ask him what he knows. Ater his technical lesson is done, he might tell you a few of the tidbits he hasn’t published yet, a few of his new thoughts. But he will also quickly tell you that his post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and other staff in (and out) of his laboratory are the true masterminds and workhorses behind the flashy news articles and press releases written about his 5+ startups.
Other well-connected, humble, yet prolific and surprisingly business-savvy professors like Chris will never advertise this on their lab website, but they might tell you, in person, that you shouldn’t even be talking to “the professor” about your problems. Instead, they might say you should be talking to a long-time practitioner, a research scientist, another university staff member more versed in business processes/intellectual property/licensing, or even another corporation about your problems.
Talk to the faculty to know the technical and cultural history behind a startup, but also ask them to help you sniff out which people really know best what you want to know.
Many CEOs want to extract, procure, buy, or otherwise excise and transplant a university technology that solves a specific problem. And for this reason, startup companies founded at a university are very popular with industry these days. Ransack a university to find a startup – if you can’t find one you like, leave and go to the next professor, lab, or university — and if you do find an attractive startup, snip and cut out just the product, intellectual property, the people, whatever it is that you need, right? Ready-to-go solutions for a desperate CEO – isn’t that what this is all about?
Just as you cannot separate fruit from a tree, nor a tree from its roots, you cannot separate the professor from the startup. And if you do it right, you’ll keep both the professor and the startup close to you and your team for as long as you can.
You are leaving a wealth of innovation wisdom behind by not fully participating among this trio of players, and by not listening to what they can teach you about innovation. Get the professor and CEO of the startup together in the same room, and see what they say about your problems – to you, and to each other. Do they nod in agreement solemnly when you talk about pain points? Or do they snicker, roll their eyes, give each other knowing glances? Might their occasional bickering give you a clue about the differences in what they consider important? Their interplay – prompted by you — might be very revealing.
When an idea does develop into a startup company, how exactly did that happen, and how was the professor involved? Was Professor Schuh’s startup, Xtalic Inc., a developer of advanced alloys, a product of intention, serendipity, or a little of both? How long did the transformation from idea to viable company take? Maybe they tried things you already tried – or which you are thinking of trying yourself. Which nascent ideas in Prof. Schuh’s ivory tower made it to Xtalic, and quickly attracted a first customer? Which did not, and why?
Professors like Chris might have other startups which are still in “stealth” mode, which you do not know about – what are they, and are you talking to the right one?
Sometimes the multiple startups are somehow related – through business relationships or sharing of core technologies. Do they cooperate or compete? Are there any politics behind the personal and business relationships between the lab and the startup which you might want to know to make talking to them smoother?
Talk to the startup to understand the technology, the people, the processes, and the relationships which have endured long enough to form a new company.
Be the corporate champion who encourages your direct reports to search diligently, yet efficiently, for the right professor and the right startup, which fit your goals, your corporate culture, and your timeline. Chris and Xtalic are great, but they are certainly not the only professor-startup combo that’s out there. Let your teams meet several professors and startups, together, in person, and push them to talk — a lot.
Be open to different forms of partnership. You might decide that an investment, a joint venture, or licensing/cross-licensing with the startup is quicker and easier – but you might also find that working with the professor is better for your long-term strategic goals. I’ve met several CEOs who have done both.
In your quest for innovation, I challenge you to go to the university not just to excavate ideas or poach intellectual property, but to become the third, equal partner to the professor and the startup. Bring your problems to campus, bring your direct reports to campus, and bring to campus the ultimate decision-maker: You.
Dr. Corey Cheng is Program Director at MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program, where he has conducted business development, marketing, and sales with multi-billion-dollar, multinational companies in Asia and the United States for the past 11 years. During his career, Dr. Cheng has been a corporate research engineer at Dolby Laboratories, a university professor at the University of Miami, and a member of IEEE-USA’s Research and Development Policy Committee. Dr. Cheng has degrees from the University of Michigan, Dartmouth, and Harvard, and holds several international patents for his work in electrical engineering.