Research takes off at the University’s new startup incubator

At the new Discovery Launchpad, inventors get coached through the entrepreneurial wilderness.

The University of Minnesota's Technology Commercialization hosts an open hour for Discovery Launchpad which is the new incubator to help researchers launch companies based off innovation on Tuesday, March 12 at McNamara Alumni Center.

Jasmin Kemp

The University of Minnesota’s Technology Commercialization hosts an open hour for Discovery Launchpad which is the new incubator to help researchers launch companies based off innovation on Tuesday, March 12 at McNamara Alumni Center.

Jake Steinberg

Starting a business is a daunting task: The time commitment and risk of failure can keep researchers from bringing their inventions to market.

But a new University of Minnesota program offers help.

The University Venture Center’s new startup incubator, Discovery Launchpad, promises to guide inventors through the entrepreneurial wilderness. Launched in February, the incubator is already working with a dozen startups to commercialize publicly funded research.

Faculty and researchers working with Discovery Launchpad are paired with advisers and coached through different aspects of starting a business. 

Many inventors are full-time faculty. Discovery Launchpad connects them with business partners who have the experience and time to run the business.

“When you think about your typical researchers here at the U, they could be on top of their field, world class, but that doesn’t mean they know business,” said Venture Center Program Manager Mary MacCarthy. 

MacCarthy said inventors often underestimate the time commitment of starting a company. She said it “suck[s] up every waking hour that you have for a long time.” Inventors are good at discussing their science, but need help with explaining why customers need their product.

“They could be great at presenting in front of a conference full of other researchers, but to present asking for money is a completely different prospect,” she said.

Inventions that come out of a top-10 research institution receive years of public investment, and are often applied to big problems like cancer and pollution. That gives them a leg up over other startups.

“Big problems tend to be of interest in the market to investors and entrepreneurs,” said Venture Center Associate Director Russ Straate. However, it can be hard for startups in the Midwest.

Minnesota ranks highly among states when it comes to having an educated workforce — especially in tech and science fields, according to the Milken Institute. However, it’s missing the infrastructure that makes for a good entrepreneurship environment, like venture capital.

The University owns the intellectual property developed in its labs, which means it has a financial incentive in the survival of its startups. It launched the Venture Center in 2006 to take a more active role in ensuring technology reaches the market. The Venture Center was spinning out 3-4 startups a year for the first few years after its launch. Now, they’re working with four times that number. They looked to other institutions that promote entrepreneurship in their inventors to create the Launchpad.

“To see that not turn into something that could go out and provide benefit to the public, when the vast majority of that money is provided by public dollars … that just wouldn’t be right,” Straate said.

Cognitive development professor Phil Zelazo is in the business of measuring and improving executive function skills. “These are skills that allow you to sustain your attention and stay focused on a single thing,” he said. 

In order to ensure his tools would be used wisely and maintain their scientific integrity, he worked with the Venture Center to launch his business, Reflection Sciences. They helped him incorporate his company and acquire a patent.

He said he’s glad to see the University helping bring science to the public.

“It’s a paradigm shift at the U in terms of understanding the value of the intellectual property that many faculty generate,” he said.