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Monday, June 30, 2008

OC learns to do tech entrepreneurship

This week I’m attending a 2-day conference on university-industry relations at the West Coast home of the National Academies of Science and Engineering, back at my alma mater, UCI.

The event is taking place at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center — named using the profits from Beckman Instruments, founded in 1935 to make instruments to help grow oranges. Beckman Coulter is now a $3 billion/year company based in nearby Fullerton.

One of the sessions was about UCI’s efforts at developing a technology entrepreneurship ecosystem for Orange County, which has a population of 3.1 million but (unlike most urban counties in California) has no single dominant city.

My PhD studies at UCI overlapped UCI’s first push, with Accelerate (1989 to 1997), a SBDC that was a pale knock-off of the grandaddy of all public university tech hub programs, UCSD’s Connect. Having met Bill Otterson (the successful entrepreneur who created Connect and ran it until his death in 1999), the event planner at the head of Accelerate never had a prayer of duplicating 10% of that success.

Having been away from UCI since 2002 (except an occasional visit now and then and again), it is clear that UCI’s role in this innovation ecosystem has changed dramatically since then.

Phase II began in 2002, and was much more successful. In the Fall 2002, a new program called OCTANe was co-founded by a local executive (Dwight Decker, Chairman of Conexant) and a UCI’s vice-chancellor for fundraising (ex-MIT ILO head Tom Moebus). The program gets a couple of people from UCI, but otherwise is funded outside — from industry membership, program fees or from nonprofit grants.

Headed since March 2004 by Gary Augusta, the organization has an interesting (and perhaps unique) structure.
So far, it has helped create 27 companies, mostly in IT and biomedical. While that’s a small part of the 650 VC-backed companies, it’s a pretty good track record for this new program.

UCI is the informal hub of the OCTANe model, but UCI is more directly at the center of two other initiatives, which were recounted by Dave Schetter, outgoing head of the UCI tech transfer office.

One is the role that UCI plays (like other universities) in accelerating the commercialization of its own technologies through its tech transfer office. Starting from university licensed technology, UCI helps get funding from SBIR, STRR and UC Discovery Grants. To facilitate tech transfer, it also colocates researchers and startups in industrial space at the UCI research park. The acceleration model was a complex PowerPoint animation — I hope that the JPEG below captures some of it.

Second, UCI, its TTO and its entrepreneurship center are jointly running Orange County Business Incubation Network, a group of local incubators. Two already exist — Orange Coast Medical Ventures and Tech Coast Works (IT) — and two others in biotech and aerospace are planned.

Between successful startups (like Allergan, Broadcom and Conexant) and retirees, OC has capital available for startups. One legitimate question from the floor was how to create this sort of infrastructure for tech startups without such capital — which is not a problem that California clusters really have to worry about.

What does it take to create such a system? Augusta said three things: money, leadership and a catalyst to change the culture and create cooperation across boundaries and silos.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Product design and tech startups

The Wall Street Journal had a special section this week on the importance of product design. It’s currently available free, although (as with other stuff on their site) you can never tell what’s going to end up behind the pay wall.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the importance of product design in both the practice and teaching of technology-based startups. In general, firms that enter a high-tech market tend to enter based on innovation (Dell being the obvious exception). And — particularly given Apple’s influence with the iPod and iPhone — good product design is increasingly important as a differentiator.

This means that startups often need good design skills to have their products noticed in the market. We tend to think of industrial design — the shape of the device, placement of buttons, etc.

But as a Mac programmer of nearly 20 years, we also got drilled into us the importance of user interface design — which Xerox got (e.g. with the Mesa, Alto and SmallTalk systems), Apple refined, but many Windows software companies long ignored. Apple has carried this over to the iPhone: the features that the iPhone has are not exceptional, but the ease of use is. And from what I’ve seen, Apple’s high standards for Macintosh UIs have carried over to 3rd parties on the iPhone.

This also carries over into education. Stanford has an acclaimed (and AFAIK unique) Design Division within its Mechanical Engineering department. SJSU locates its design department within the combined School of Art and Design. As with other SJSU programs (like EE, CS and business), the design program provides the largest share of local design workers due to our size and that majority of our graduates end up in Santa Clara County. The design students were quite prominent in our recent Silicon Valley Business Plan Competition.

My favorite story in the special section was about the new masonry field saw developed by MK Diamond. It sounded like an important breakthrough in portability and usability for a very mature product category. More interestingly, it had elements of user innovation in the story, which was interesting both because the users got involved in developing the technology — and also that the manufacturer listened.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Georgia Tech’s TI:GER program

Last month, I was fortunate to be able to attend a workshop on technology management education that was held at Georgia Tech. The workshop emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of such education. Earlier I blogged about Harvard’s brand new technology commercialization program, instituted by Lee Fleming and his colleagues.

But with the press of work, I didn’t write up what was covered about our host’s program, the Georgia Tech TI:GER program. The program was initially funded by a National Science Foundation IGERT grant, but with the expiration of the grant is seeking replacement funding. Host Marie Thursby created the TI:GER program, based on her earlier program at Purdue.

Eccb810Ae7A0352Ce0Ed9110. Aa160 .LPart of the importance of the program was transfer to other programs. One mechanism for that was the publication of a book of readings edited by Thursby and Gary Libecap. The chapters are among the readings used in the three semester-length core courses for the TI:GER students.

The TI:GER program is jointly sponsored by Georgia Tech and the Emory Law school. Each interdisciplinary team includes a Georgia Tech MBA student, two Emory law students, and a science or engineering PhD student (3rd or 4th year) from Georgia Tech. The learning goals for the team members are:
  • S&E PhDs: become aware of business and legal issues, produce a dissertation of technical merit and market relevance and (perhaps) commercialize their own technology;
  • MBAs, JDs: get experience in technical research setting; and
  • All: communication/team skills
So far the program has included 190 students in six years. One of the teams — Syzygy Memory Plastics, with Ph.D. student Walter Voit explaining the potential of the technology to make objects that will spring into any shape.