My journey from developer to founder passed directly through the intersection of academia and industry: sponsored research in a graduate program at a state university. This location presents both advantages and disadvantages, and this article will discuss these attributes for those currently attending a graduate program or considering returning to school for further education.
Why Graduate School?
I grew up in Appalachian southeast Ohio, in a village of less than 2,000 people, but the university I attended was only a half hour away.
If you are not in a tech hub or even a large city, your local university might be the best place to meet like-minded folks interested in innovation, with unique skill sets, and with expertise in attracting funding from state/federal agencies and industry partners.
Developing Your Skillset
During graduate school, I had several graduate appointments as a software developer. First as an educational game developer, then optimizing medical imaging applications, and later working on a navigational modeling package used by civil aviation authorities in over 17 countries. These skills and the technology I developed (more on that later) translated directly into the business my labmate and I founded.
If you are granted a Ph.D. (and to a lesser extent an M.S.) from a university, then you are, by definition, a world expert in some niche of your field. The probability is high that there exists some industry that will desire the technology you work on as a graduate student. Similarly, you are surrounded by other complementary world experts in the same building, if not the same hallway. Don’t be afraid to collaborate.
Making the transition
As a researcher, I would present my work at the Ohio University Research and Creativity Expo annually. In 2011, the Center for Entrepreneurship co-located a business plan competition with the Expo (and an associated cash prize) and I decided to enter. I ended up coming in 2nd, but this would mark my first foray into the world of business.
The following year we decided to try again, but this time, we teamed up with one of the MBA students from the College of Business. The field was more competitive and we walked away with another 2nd place victory.
Business competitions are a great way to vet your idea and learn the language of businesspeople; chances are your university’s College of Business will host at least one annually. As engineers, we often have some small disdain for businesspeople, but as a startup founder, you are either going to have to interface directly with many businesspeople or with your business oriented co-founder. Get used to it.
Becoming a Founder
The summer of 2012, the local business incubator, Ohio University’s Innovation Center, held a competition for five student-run businesses to receive $20,000. To receive the money, required attending ten weeks of intense training on becoming successful entrepreneurs. I believe the newly minted Affine Technologies, LLC was the only team with no officially designated businessperson, so this was a great learning experience for my partner and I.
Many states have programs meant specifically to instruct interested parties on how to successfully run a startup. These are especially useful if you are going to try to raise capital from a third party; alternatively, if you would prefer to “learn as you go”, “bootstrapping” is a legitimate option.
Bridging the Gap
I stayed on with the university on an “intermittent, on-demand” basis; this allowed me to pay the bills while my partner and I “bootstrapped” our company without the need to take on outside investment. We did, however, take advantage of several State of Ohio grants and other programs to try to get ahead.
If you are a would-be developer-turned-founder, then this probably means that you are already gainfully employed. If this is the case, it is a reasonable strategy to try to self-fund your company until you reach your minimum viable product. One pitfall is the possibility that your employer will (try to) claim any work you do, even outside business hours. Which leads us to…
This hurdle was the biggest headache in my journey. Their terms weren’t onerous, the royalty and equity stake were fine; the problem was they moved at the speed of academia. From what I gather, this is not unique to my university.
The only two downsides I found from the graduate school approach are: first, your graduate stipend is probably about half of market value for your skill level, and second, if you are being paid by the university to develop something, they are going to claim they own it. On the bright side, this is the point in the process where you become very familiar with the ins and outs of copyright, patents, and intellectual property in general.
With your technology licensed and (hopefully) mature enough to be considered a minimum viable product, you are ready to test the waters and see if the world is as excited about your product as you were to dedicate years of your life researching, designing, developing and bringing it to market. Good luck.
Affine Technologies is currently planning our first product launch October 2016; a tool to assist with ensuring compliance with the FAA’s line-of-sight rule for UAVs.
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