Innovation Destination: Hartford met with Paul Parker, Director of the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program and Natalie D’Oyen, Associate Director, who shared information about the program and how it is enhancing economic development throughout Connecticut. IDH also received a tour of TIP’s facilities and met some innovative startups.
IDH: Tell me about the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program (TIP).
PARKER: The TIP supports student-started companies, faculty-started companies and some companies from outside of UConn that are doing sponsored research at UConn or collaborating with faculty and students.
We have offices and both wet and dry labs on the campuses of Storrs, Avery Point and Farmington, CT. Our new 20,000 square foot expansion space in Farmington will be opening at the beginning of January and provide an additional 32 labs and 40 offices.
We strive to have all the TIP companies have some form of collaboration with the University. We also like to have our companies hire UConn students when they need student labor. Our goal is to help our companies grow and create jobs within the State of Connecticut.
D’OYEN: We currently have 24 companies in the program and we are very proud of the fact that up to the end of last year, these startups had created 58 full-time jobs across Connecticut. They also supported another 30-plus part-time positions. That’s a very important contribution to the Connecticut economy.
Right now, we have two student companies among the 24. The student companies in our program are often founded by graduate students who have developed something novel on their own time and have created a feasible business proposition around their idea, or who have worked with a UConn faculty member to develop something in a UConn lab. Dura Biotech was one of those student-faculty ventures and it’s now one of our biggest TIP companies in terms of employment.
Eric Sirois, PhD, who is Chief Executive Officer at Dura Biotech told us the TIP has been an ideal home for them, having technology that came out of a UConn faculty lab. He says Dura Biotech has been able to develop its technology more effectively because of the access to services, talent and information the TIP provides.
IDH: What other types of companies are participating in the program?
D’OYEN: We also have companies started by UConn faculty, as well as companies started by entrepreneurs who wanted to come to UConn to use the specialized equipment and facilities available here to further their research on their products or to develop their products through working directly with UConn faculty.
We have yet another group—these are external, established companies that want to have their new research and development spin-offs working directly with UConn faculty. We’re expecting more of those types of companies to join the program when our new building opens up in early 2016.
PARKER: One thing we should say is that the TIP does not take any equity from the companies. Companies only have to make their monthly rent payments. All the equity stays within each company.
IDH: How do companies become involved with the TIP?
D’OYEN: We are focused on ensuring that the companies in the program can take full advantage of the fact that the TIP is part of one of the nation’s top public research universities, so we don’t take just any company that wants office or lab space. We’re also selective with the student companies we accept. With a school as large as UConn, there are a lot of entrepreneurs within the student body at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so we might offer space to say, an Innovation Quest winner at UConn, as that could indicate a certain level of potential and feasibility in the venture, and that’s always helpful in the startup vetting process.
PARKER: It’s important to note with any startup company—whether it’s student-started or faculty-started—this is not a research forum for them to come in and do basic research. We look for companies that we think are going to be commercially successful.
Our graduation rate is about 60/65% for companies that have gone on and been successful, which is much higher than the 25% national average because we go through an in-depth selection process up front and we make sure that the companies are viable, that they’re not just research projects.
We think that the companies we take in are going to be successful. When a technology entrepreneur indicates that he or she is interested in joining the program, they go through an application process and they submit a business plan outline and financial models. If Natalie and I think they are a good fit, we’ll have them come in for an interview with a group of business and subject area experts in the industry that the company is geared toward, for example, in the life sciences.
If the company is approved, we offer them a three-year lease. The company and the University both have a 60-day out, so if the company decides it isn’t working or they are purchased or not getting funding, they have an opportunity to get out of the contract. Conversely, the University has the same ability.
IDH: What types of services does the TIP provide?
PARKER: In addition to the space, we help companies with their business plans and their financial models. One of the big things we’re doing now is helping them with their pitches—from the elevator pitch all the way up to their sales or investor pitch, where they are talking to potential clients or to potential investors. Once the company is ready, we will make introductions to potential investors who we think would be a good match for them.
On top of that, they have access to the UConn library and the University network. If they need access to some of the specialized equipment or to the Core Facilities at the University, Natalie can usually work out an arrangement where they utilize the equipment for a fee so they don’t have to go out and buy the equipment themselves, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
IDH: So you’re really helping to set them up to become successful and independent too, which is important.
D’OYEN: The huge difference is the business development support that the TIP provides, whether it is providing access to equipment or helping connect companies to sources of business support and funding. These are intangible things that are impossible to put a value on, so we can’t quantify how much of our help goes into the success of the companies that eventually graduate from the TIP. We do know that it really makes a difference to that company’s likelihood of success at the end of the day. And we are proud of that.
IDH: You also provide 10 or 12 events throughout the year.
D’OYEN: Our events are intended to provide business training to our entrepreneurs in the TIP, but they’re open to tech entrepreneurs throughout Connecticut. The events are open and they’re free, thanks to the financial support we’ve gotten from Connecticut Natural Gas and from the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the UConn School of Business.
PARKER: The TIP events are educational seminars. Topics have included pricing, how to give a pitch, marketing, how to start a business, intellectual property and how to be successful.
We have lawyers, accountants, investors, business service providers and fellow entrepreneurs come in and give a lot of the presentations. They all volunteer their time. They all want to be a part of the program, because ultimately if they get involved with a startup company now, who knows what the next big company is going to be?
IDH: What do you enjoy most about working with entrepreneurs and startup companies?
D’OYEN: It’s interesting. It’s fun helping a brilliant scientist who has created something earth shattering. There are lots of brilliant scientists around the world creating truly innovative products, but only a few make it to the market and have success. It’s wonderful to be able to help make that difference.
PARKER: I enjoy working with so many intelligent people who think outside the box. We have companies working on wearable technology to monitor glucose levels 24/7, doing stem cell research looking for cures for various diseases, and developing a cure for hearing loss just to mention a few. It is always exciting interviewing new companies to find out what else people are working on.
One example is Shoreline Biome, which recently set up their lab at the 400 Farmington Avenue facility. Let me introduce you to Co-Founders Mark Driscoll, PhD and Tom Jarvie, PhD.
IDH: As a startup company, what do you enjoy most about the TIP experience?
DRISCOLL: We have found the people working with us at the TIP to be experienced, knowledgeable and supportive. Paul, Rita, Natalie and the team are well connected both within and outside the incubator program, and have been there to provide advice and access to resources as our business moves forward.
In addition, through personal introductions and the variety of programs they host and sponsor, they have helped us make valuable connections within the business community that help us identify opportunities for partnership and funding.
JARVIE: The facilities are also top-notch. The TIP is very responsive to our needs in terms of facilities resources, and there are a wide array of interesting companies doing all kinds of ground-breaking work. We look forward to the opening of the additional TIP space, which should bring a whole new level of vibrancy to the site at 400 Farmington, and the community as a whole.
IDH: Let’s talk about the internship program.
PARKER: Dr. Caroline Dealy, a professor at the UConn Health Center, created the 10-week TIP Summer Internship Program at UConn. There are a number of schools involved, including the School of Business and the School of Engineering.
Up until last year, the individual Schools at UConn would pay half of their students’ summer salaries and the company would pay the other half. So, if the student was making $3,200, the company only had to pay $1,600 for 10 weeks of work. Dr. Dealy kept pushing the envelope, and this past year for the most part, the program was free for the companies, with the Schools paying the students.
The Schools are seeing the value for the students in getting first-hand experience working for a startup company, in most cases in a lab environment, and the companies have the benefits of having some extremely bright and driven students working and contributing to the success of their companies.
IDH: And did any of the students move on with the startups?
PARKER: Dr. Dealy has expanded the program. They now have interns for credit, so the companies have the ability to get some of the same interns working for them during the fall and spring semesters, where the student can receive academic credits for their work. In addition, a number of the companies have hired their interns afterward.
IDH: Can each of you explain your roles and your involvement with the TIP?
PARKER: I think we both overlap with what we do. We both spend a lot of time trying to find new companies and dealing with the current companies.
D’OYEN: We sit down and help entrepreneurs think a lot of things through.
PARKER: Right, I agree with Natalie, we spend a lot of time talking with the companies finding out how things are going, where they may need help, reviewing their presentations and their pitches and helping them find outside help, whether it is a legal or accounting advice or a business mentor. We have a list of service providers and experienced business mentors who are volunteering their time to help. Whatever the company may need, we are here to help them find a solution.
D’OYEN: The obvious thing is that we provide a physical space. So we’re landlords. As a company renting space in a business incubator, you know you’ll get office or lab space—you get the four walls and a lab and there aren’t very many small lab spaces available for rent in Connecticut.
But because we are paid through the University (i.e., through the State), we are able to provide all of these additional services at no extra cost to the companies. Being part of the state machinery and having economic development support and even the development impetus has been really great. We see our work as economic development—we are here to support the growth of technology startups in Connecticut.
It’s amazing what the TIP has contributed to not just startup and entrepreneurship and research, but what it is contributing to overall economic development.