University Spin-Outs

I am a big fan of high-tech companies. People that know me (and my co-investors) know that I like companies that are “changing the world” or “creating new industries” through technology innovation. And they know that I believe that research universities spawn great technologies and deserve public support. Universities do a terrific and efficient job of educating students, organizing research projects, getting and managing grants, and investigating science in a way that can make meaningful contributions to society.

I do not believe, however, that universities can do a good job of creating companies from the technologies that they create. This is a fundamentally different skill set than most (if not all) universities have as a core competence. It has been well demonstrated (e.g. Josh Lerner’s book, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams) that most governmental organizations don’t do well in creating or nurturing entrepreneurial businesses.

I do, however, believe that it is a fundamentally good idea to help start companies from university technologies. While the universities play a key role in making this happen, I am disturbed by a trend that seems to be emerging of universities establishing internal angel funds to spin out companies. It is a good idea to give very limited amounts of money and a great deal of support to key university faculty or grad students to help them understand if their technology makes sense to commercialize. Many universities already have small funds that give grants toward this end – something like $25-50,000 to help bridge the gap between pure research and a product or to pair business school students with engineers. But setting up multi-million dollar funds to compete with existing angels and VCs is a really bad idea.

It is really hard to take a new technology, build a company around it, and bring products based on that technology to market. This is something that VCs and, increasingly, angel investors have done successfully for many years.

History is littered with examples. How many states in the US and countries worldwide have decided to create “clusters” for specific technologies so that they could participate in the explosive growth of a new industry? Very few have been successful. Incubators have come and gone, wasting a lot of public money.

I believe that, instead of spending precious resources on trying to take companies from the “research stage” to the “company stage” it is a much wiser course for research universities to work with established financing sources for early-stage companies, like active angel groups. And for governments to help sponsor that collaboration by setting a public policy that incents angels who are willing to put their own money on the line to help create a company.

Many states have now established tax incentives along these lines. The Angel Capital Association has a summary of these activities. (http://www.angelcapitalassociation.org/public-policy/state-policy-kit/ ) This makes much more sense to me than asking universities to replace or augment Angels or VCs.

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