Today I was a guest at the Georgia Research Alliance Board of Trustees meeting at Coca-Cola’s Headquarters. I was invited to share my thoughts on GRA’s new Industry Fellows program.
The GRA is an incredible resource for Georgia. It is a public-private collaboration among business, state government, and 6 Georgia research universities (Georgia Tech, Emory, Georgia State, UGA, Clark Atlanta, and Georgia Regents University). GRA recruits world-class researchers to these universities through the GRA Eminent Scholars program and helps commercialize research out of the universities by providing grants, loans, and investments in university-based technology. Check out some of the stats on their success here.
GRA recently conducted a study of the success rate of the ventures they have funded. They are significantly beating the odds for early stage ventures. That’s impressive given the deep science and very early stage nature of these startups.
They also looked at the failures and studied why they were unsuccessful. No surprise – a leading cause was not having the right team. In response, they created the Industry Fellows program to pair up experienced entrepreneurs and industry executives with the GRA companies to help mentor and connect them with early team members. Mike Cassidy, the CEO of GRA, called it “the eHarmony of Georgia’s technology sector”.
GRA has a heavyweight Board of Trustees (Check them out here). I focused my comments on why leveraging experienced entrepreneurs and industry experts in the customer discovery and business model creation process is a ‘best practice’. Here’s a summary of my presentation:
- First year companies in ATDC’s 3 year incubation program quickly learn that building a successful company requires more than an idea and an innovative technology
- To succeed they must develop a business model and gain access to 4 resources: customers, capital, talent, and coaching.
- ATDC leverages experienced entrepreneurs and industry executives through our Entrepreneur-In-Residence (EIR) and Mentor programs to help the companies discover a scalable business model and gain access to those 4 resources. CEOs tell us it is the most valuable part of the ATDC experience.
- The Industry Fellows program has the opportunity to do the same for researchers and GRA companies.
- GRA companies entering ATDC are often still in ‘project mode’ – taking on projects to fund their activities and research rather than discovering a scalable business model.
- Injecting mentoring earlier in the process will increase the pace and rate of success
- GRA provides critical seed funding for early stage university-based startups (something that is in short supply in Georgia) and the Industry Fellows program will help the companies get farther on the funding provided by GRA.
- In a startup you are betting more on the team than the technology
- Since researchers are almost never the ones that will go on to build the company, the Industry Fellows program will help them connect with potential CEOs and early team members. Keith McGreggor, Director of VentureLab at Georgia Tech, says that is the hardest part of what they do.
- Georgia is fortunate to have world-class research universities, but entrepreneurs don’t know how to access the innovation on campus.
- Entrepreneurs will be excited to join the Industry Fellows program since they are wired to ‘give back’ and value networks that give them access to sources of innovation that will lead to future startup opportunities.
As a bonus – Governor Deal also attended the meeting. Here are a few highlights from his comments:
- He talked about why GRA is important to Georgia’s economic development efforts.
- He mentioned 3 emerging sectors he sees: immunology, cancer research, and internet security
- He mentioned 3 GRA startups by name: Damballa, Urjanet, and MedShape
- GRA’s 60+ Eminent Scholars have attracted over $200 million in funding to Georgia and employ over 1500 scientists and engineers
- He talked about why the Affordable Care Act would impact Georgia more than some other states. He encouraged startups focused on better and more affordable healthcare.
- As a parent, my favorite part was Gov. Deal “let out a secret” that they were looking to follow the Eminent Scholars model and create an Eminent Teachers program for K-12 education, calling it “the greatest opportunity for the least amount of money”. I agree – it’s an awesome idea. See Maria Saporta’s Atlanta Business Chronicle Article on this here.