Thursday, March 13, 2014

Binghamton University Helps High-tech Ideas Become Companies

Can I start my own company? That's one of the bi8ggest challenges faced by researchers and inventors is figuring out whether or not their idea actually has the potential to develop into a business. Finding answers to that question was the focus of a workshop sponsored last month by Binghamton University. Seven teams from BU and SUNY Broome brought ideas ranging from a more efficient clothes dryer, to chemical dyes, to complex algorithms.

The Pre-Seed Workshop is an established program that has been offered over 60 times at universities throughout New York, and more recently in other locations in the U.S. and Switzerland. The term "seed" refers to seed capital, an essential component of the early-stage financial investments that are necessary to launch most high-tech companies. The workshop targets individuals whose ideas have matured to the point that they can be examined and evaluated for commercial potential.

The programs, originally created by consultants Mark Wilson and Judy Albers, are managed in the Southern Tier by AM&T. Michael Meador, AM&T Principal Consultant, is a certified facilitator for the workshops and led the recent program at BU.

Well in advance of the workshop, BU staff solicited applications from "idea champions" within the university and from SUNY Broome. Once selected, each idea champion became the center of a team of 4-7 people who were recruited by BU staff and that included consultants, attorneys, business students, tech transfer staff from BU, and others whose education and experience were relevant to the team. Most team members work in the program on a volunteer basis.

The workshop consists of two full days of work, scheduled a week apart from each other. For nine hours on the first day, the teams are given a series of assignments to explore various aspects of commercializing their technology. The first modules include defining the product and identifying any intellectual property involved.

Next, the team defines the market need — what products currently exist in the space, and what problem the technology solves. Then comes competition analysis, where the team is asked to identify existing and potential rival products, and create comparisons the their technology. Additional topics and assignments are covered during both days of the workshop.

One key individual on each team is the coach — a management or senior level person from industry who helps team stay focused on the assignment for each breakout session. Another resource for the teams is a BU librarian who was available through the workshop period to assist with research.

One specific product of the workshop is a 15-minute presentation that each team gives to a feedback panel of investors at the end of the second full day. The teams begin creating content for the presentations in the first hours, but with the fast pace and intensity of workshop, the teams typically finish the first day with a lot of open questions and incomplete data. Thus the workshop participants are expected to continually refine their work during the next week and have most of their presentation completed when they arrive for the second full day.

Another element of the workshop looks at typical personality characteristics of entrepreneurs and prompts inventors to consider how well their personality traits and personal goals match those of an entrepreneur. The inventors learn, for example, if they would be good at assembling an effective management team, what function for them might be the best fit, and whether it could be best to take a backseat role in the company.

This program is targeted at such an early stage in technology commercialization -- before the inventors go for seed money -- for two reasons. One is that that it can help promising businesses chart a more effective and efficient path to success.  The other reason is that is can save time and money by weeding out weaker technologies that would likely never survive an investor’s criteria for funding.

At several times during the workshop, teams share portions of their results with all the participants who ask questions and make suggestions. This helps the presenters anticipate the kind of questions and comments that might come from the feedback panel at the end of the workshop. The panel members are typically venture capital investors who are charged with providing comments that help the inventors understand what else might be necessary to make their endeavor an investable opportunity.

Participants leave these workshops with a new perspective on their product, and a new understanding of what their next steps are -- whether that is beginning to pitch and further refine their idea or to put it on the shelf and re-direct their efforts. They get a good picture of the reality of starting a company, after which they can make a thoughtful decision.

Pre-Seed Workshops are also being held this spring in Long Island, Buffalo, and Ithaca; and another one is planned at BU on 2015.  For more information about the workshops, contact Michael Meador at AM&T or visit

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