Just before Christmas, I had the privilege of attending the annual conference of the University Technology Enterprise Network (UTEN), an organization dedicated to (in their words) “professionalizing and advancing science and technology commercialization in Portugal.” As the AUTM® vice president for Strategic Alliances, I was invited to participate on a panel discussing technology transfer networks.
I have to say, it was an enlightening meeting, and the lessons learned and best practices shared have value beyond Portugal. So brace yourself: this is a long post, but there was lots of good information to share!
Commitment from the Top
The opening panel featured top science and technology decision makers in the Portuguese government, including the secretary of state for science. By their very presence — not to mention their comments — these leaders showed their commitment to grow Portugal’s entrepreneurship and the economy via technology. The lesson: Commitment from the top is essential.
Insights on Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Gary Hoover, founder of Hoover’s, Inc. (a rock star in the market research world), talked about entrepreneurship not being about raising money, getting rich, or technology. It’s about having passion about serving the needs of others. Since we share the view that tech transfer ultimately is not about the technology so much as it’s about the problem it solves or desire it serves, I agree with him.
In a talk that was reminiscent of Andrew Hargadon‘s book How Breakthroughs Happen, Hoover also said that the key steps in innovation are education (not necessarily in the classroom), conversation, observation, experimentation, and cogitation (think and reflect for lessons learned before moving forward). In terms of tech transfer, I found this very consistent with our approach to learn about the pain points in the market through primary market research as well as constantly striving to improve the models used to stay relevant and effective.
Why Startups Fail
Vinit Nijhawan of Boston University’s Office of Technology Development provided an excellent list of why startups fail:
- A lack of primary market research – Gotta do more than online searches, just like Gary suggested in his conversation point. (Here are some tips for conducting interviews with market experts.)
- Poor hiring – Hire people smarter than you and that round out your team’s skill set. (This certainly has worked well for me!)
- Wrong location – It’s not just access to markets but also access to the resources the startup needs to succeed.
- Poor market timing – You have to be able to give them what they need when they need it.
- Thinking too small – Keep a broad perspective so you don’t miss the big-picture opportunity.
Startup Advice from the Front Lines
The UTEN conference also gave attendees the opportunity to hear advice for startups from several who had been in the trenches. For example:
- Helena Vieira said that, in launching and building her natural products biotech startup Bioalvo, she needed a third party in the U.S. in order to broker the deal. She discussed how having this “presence” not only built trust and credibility with U.S. investors and businesses but also was needed just to get the meetings.
- João Barros said that at his company Veniam ‘Works they recognized they needed to sell benefits and features, not the technology. (Great example of applying the AMMO.) He also said that, if you want to capture a potential investor’s or partner’s interest, having a prototype or demo is much more important than white papers and publications.
Working Across Borders
There were presentations from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Texas–Austin, both of which are major partners of UTEN with a strong and permanent presence in Portugal to solidify and maintain the connection between Portugal and the entrepreneurial communities in Pennsylvania and Texas. (IMHO, this presence is a best practice.) They had interesting insights:
- Jim Vance of UT-Austin’s IC2 Institute said that the U.S. may be an easier venue for startups than Portugal because there is access to primary market feedback and venture capitalists (VCs) help analyze and respond to it to reduce risk.
- João Claro of CMU Portugal said that for entrepreneurs in Portugal to learn and improve from the shared experiences of their startup colleagues, they have to look beyond their compatriots. They must be international in their networking, because within Portugal there are very few entrepreneurs to learn from. (Loved his use of The Big Bang Theory episode where Howard turned to Penny for advice when he had to go fishing with his father-in-law to explain how important real experience is!)
Creating an Entrepreneurial Economy
- Jaime Parada Avila from Monterrey, Mexico, shared a successful model: Instituto de Innovación y Transferencia de Tecnología de Nuevo León. Much more than just an innovation park, I2T2 is well supported by all sectors, including the government.
- Francisco Velaso, dean of Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics and CMU professor, noted that the competition among U.S. universities encourages developing excellence and having better incentives to keep the best talent. He wants research institutions in Portugal to get more competitive too.
The Power of Tech Transfer Networks
As for my panel, I was joined by representatives of organizations similar to AUTM: Senén Barro Ameniero of the Iberian university network RedEmprendia and Michel Mordant from ProTon Europe. (Arlindo Oliveira, Instituto Superior Técnico, Technical University of Lisbon was our excellent moderator.) We discussed networking and leveraging peer group associations.
In addition to some great questions from the audience about training and networking, it seemed this group in Portugal was surprised to hear that many small to mid-range universities in the U.S. struggle with the same issues they do when it comes to building their reputation; gaining access to investors, partners, and licensees; and just being recognized as a resource. My recommendations to the audience were:
- Go to conferences like the upcoming 2013 AUTM annual meeting, which give you a chance to network and also learn about new techniques and models. And don’t be shy! Go up and ask people questions — this gives you a chance not only to learn but also to get noticed.
- Leverage online tools like AUTM’s Global Technology Portal to help make sure your university’s technologies and capabilities are found by people looking for innovations.
- Augment your “book smarts” with a mentor to help accelerate your real-world experience learning.
Congratulations to the UTEN meeting organizers for assembling such an impressive group of international technology transfer leaders to share information and best practices.
Were you at the UTEN meeting last month? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below or send me a private message.