It's called "the valley of death"—the minefield that entrepreneurs must cross between creation of a start-up company and commercial success. And there is something even worse: the time between a discovery or invention in the lab and the establishment of a start-up company to commercialize it.
Now a nonprofit called the Michigan Tech Entrepreneurial Support Corporation (MTESC), established in October 2010, will help University inventors commercialize technologies. MTESC's goal—like that of other university technology transfer centers around the country—is to help move early-stage discoveries from university labs to successful commercial enterprises. A gift from a private donor will fund MTESC's operating expenses and small, competitive grants.
Researchers at Michigan Tech often make discoveries and develop inventions that could become marketable products. But first they must develop them into a relatively advanced concept prior to forming a start-up company and attracting investment capital.
What typically happens between the lab and the start-up? Inventors of a new product or process have to negotiate a barren stretch, where they lack the funding and the administrative infrastructure to turn a clever idea into a start-up business. There are few road signs along that pathway and even less financial support.
Yet, Michigan Tech is the perfect place to nurture a successful entrepreneurial culture. With more than $58 million in sponsored research activity, and with innovations coming from the undergraduate Enterprise Program, the University now ranks number one among Michigan universities for invention disclosures per $10 million of research.
MTESC will be a complement to—not a replacement for—current economic development activities in the community, such as those funded by the Michigan University Commercialization Initiative and the Michigan Tech SmartZone, said David Reed, vice president for research. "There is a huge gap in the commercialization pathway that is not being addressed by federal or state programs," he explained. "MTESC is designed to help bridge this gap."
Its goal is to nurture the formation of at least five start-ups a year.
The nonprofit plans to establish a for-profit subsidiary to enable entrepreneurs to apply for federal Small Business Innovative Research grants. Only private corporations can receive SBIR grants.
MTESC will operate as a "proof-of-concept center," Reed said. It will support commercialization of faculty, staff, and student discoveries and inventions the way similar centers at other universities do—the Deshpande Center at MIT, for example, and the Von Liebig Center at the University of California–San Diego.
"Ultimately, our aim is to attract and support a community of people who have great innovations they want to bring to the marketplace," Reed said. "We want to do everything we can to grow a culture of entrepreneurship at Michigan Tech."