We’re getting ready to kick off the 2014 CSUPERB – Idea-to-Product (I2P(R)) Early-Stage Biotechnology Commercialization Challenge. But I want to put a wrap on the 2013 Challenge. It was a doozy and is worthy of its own blog post (here’s the official (draft) 2-pager almost ready for next week’s kick-off).
Working behind the scenes I saw the incredible passion and verve the student teams brought to the competition in Anaheim. But I also had the fly-on-the-wall view of the entire process and can attest these students (and their faculty mentors) travelled along an exceedingly steep (and sharp) learning curve. This is no competition for tired, risk-adverse biotechnologists.
CSUPERB is by no means the only organization looking for effective and meaningful formats for entrepreneurship education.* When we began evaluating platforms and formats, there were many models for technology commercialization throughout the California State University from which to learn. San Diego State and CSU San Bernardino partnered on CCAT, a federally funded project to commercialize technologies critical to homeland security and national defense. That project team can report out on its effectiveness in terms of leveraged funding, sales, license agreements and merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. Likewise many CSU campuses host Small Business Development Centers; several have technology expertise and assist with the commercialization of technology product or services. These groups judge success based on new company formation and capital financing, among other metrics.
But when surveyed, the CSU biotechnology community focused firmly on educational needs and outcomes, not financing to cross valleys of death or infrastructure to accelerate new company formation. The most common question posed by CSU researchers was, “What is needed to take a life science idea to a commercial product?” Students and faculty asked CSUPERB to reduce the gap in knowledge (& culture) between basic researchers and their commercial world counterparts.
Faculty and administrators at San Jose State University and CSU East Bay had experience with the University of Texas at Austin’s Idea-to-Product competition platform. Terri Swartz (dean of business at CSU East Bay, now retired) introduced us to Steven Nichols at UT Austin. The two of them thought the I2P format would work well for biotechnology commercialization; they had seen a handful of biotech teams compete successfully in the global competition. I2P coordinators define program success as improved skills working in multidisciplinary teams, increased understanding of the technology commercialization process and the bolstering of cross-disciplinary collaborations on campus. That seemed like a good match for the CSU biotech community’s needs.
The main advantage of the I2P format in our two years’ of experience is that it’s not a business plan competition. We like to think we’re special in biotechnology. When biotech product developers address unmet needs related to human health and nutrition, they face unique regulatory hurdles and complicated markets. Students need to understand the exceedingly high standards of product safety. But it’s usually customer definition that derails student entrepreneurs. Scientists and engineers fall in love with their technologies; they are typically motivated by the need to “help people.” But rarely does a patient buy a drug or device or medical supply directly from a company. There are layers upon layers of buyers and agencies between patients and companies. Each year we see I2P teams run into this “buzz-saw” as they figure out who exactly their initial customers really are. It is this initial market and customer definition (and refinement!) that characterizes the biotech I2P competition and knocks teams out.
Again, we are not the first to recognize this as the most important hurdle technology entrepreneurs must surmount. Many of us who limped out of the early 2000’s biotech bubble burned alarming amounts of cash refining product concepts (and business plans) on the fly. Steve Blank and colleagues developed the Lean LaunchPad framework and curriculum (open, free access!) based on their belief that entrepreneurs needed greater agility. The NSF I-Corps Nodes offer entrepreneurship education to researchers based on Lean LaunchPad; Bay Area universities just won a new award and will use the framework for biotechnology commercialization. Because Blank and his colleagues are firmly focused on new company formation, I’ll be curious to see if they are (more) successful “spinning” out successful biotech companies than normal. Biotech is a slow, cruel, expensive and risky sector compared to social media, computer hardware, wireless applications and other (more) direct markets (yes, we’re special).
So – how well did the 2014 CSUPERB-I2P challenge meet the CSU’s need for entrepreneurship education?** I’m going to focus on student learning outcomes here (one of these days I’ll write about faculty learning as well!).
The students involved this year started out as true biotech newbies. I’ll say it here – there was no performance difference whatsoever between graduate students and undergraduates; they are on equal footing in this arena (others have noted the same!). Only one student reported having a family member working in a biotechnology company. A surprising percentage (73%) had never worked on a biotechnology project before! They signed up for the CSUPERB-I2P challenge for a variety of reasons (click on the chart below to see a bigger version). Most students credit the influence of a faculty mentor; only one student team dragged their mentor into the fray (he says he was merely a point-of-contact and didn’t help them at all; my guess is he’s vastly underestimating his contributions). Lesson learned: Faculty remain the major influencers and mentors leading to team success.
The teams reported on their tactics after the competition ended. The successful teams definitely put more hours ( > 80 hrs/each) into the competition than other finalists. Lesson Learned: As teams form true time and effort expectations should be set and agreed upon by all. Corollary: I2P “teams” can involve more than four students up to the “team declaration” deadline.
Lesson Learned: The hallmark of successful I2P competitors is the strength of their expert network and customer outreach. We were somewhat surprised at how little some teams did on that front (again, click on the next image below to make it bigger). Unlike the Lean LaunchPad platform, the I2P format is not built on a series of classes or lectures. The I2P Challenge is designed as a “layer” on top of entrepreneurial infrastructure (clubs or courses or collaborations) already in place on campus for students to tap into. We encourage mentors to help knit together a community for student teams. As Warren Smith (2-time winning CSUPERB-I2P mentor) says, “it takes a village.” For the 2014 challenge, CSUPERB is lining up help from Small Business Development Centers to provide “instant” or “pop-up” expert networks for student teams. We’d encourage alumni networks to form around campus teams, as well.
Surprisingly the two finalist teams – Thrombin from Sac State and Abiotic from Cal Poly Pomona – were built on completely different infrastructures. Sac State has an enviable entrepreneurial infrastructure in place now; Thrombin took full advantage of it. Abiotic on the other hand had “nothing” according to their mentor (of course, his investment in that team shines through!). Their effort was entirely student-fueled – including connections to an entrepreneurs’ club and the Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative, a biotech incubator (and the 2013 competition sponsor).
We asked both faculty mentors and student team members to report out on learning gains. This is a self-reported data, of course, but I was thrilled to see that nearly everyone (93%) agreed they experienced large or very-large gains in understanding biotechnology customers and initial markets. I am intrigued that only 47% reported a (large or very large) gain in confidence (feeling like a scientist/engineer/entrepreneur). The finalist teams competing in Anaheim made tremendous, goose-bump-inducing gains in communication skills, presentation effectiveness and broad-based understanding of their product concept between Thursday’s preliminary round and Saturday’s final presentation. We saw one team member correct a judge on a regulatory issue; the student contestant was mortified….but she was correct and the judge made sure she heard that in the final feedback session. My guess is that any and all of the I2P finalists gained a realistic understanding of what is needed to commercialize biotechnologies; that’s a humbling realization with which many venture capitalists might identify! Lesson Learned: Teams will continue to evolve product concepts and learn in real time after the preliminary judging at the symposium. Corollary: Teams should expect to work around the clock at the symposium. Corollary 2: The CSUPERB-I2P finalists are some of the most “coachable” management teams with which I’ve worked.
Lastly we asked students how the 2013 I2P experience might have impacted their career plans. A third of them are running away from biotech and into a job unrelated to the buzz saw they experienced. We know that 80% of the students involved in the competition are within a year of completing their degree programs; it’s certain that at least a third of these accomplished students might already have a career path in finance, accounting and other engineering fields worked out. I’d like to think some of them might “come back” after stints in consulting firms and social media companies! I say that because 73% of students report they can see themselves working on technology commercialization teams in the future. Lesson Learned: Most students viewed the CSUPERB-I2P challenge as a “capstone” educational opportunity.
These outcomes are pretty exciting to me personally; I think this year’s judges would agree. We’ve been a-buzz since the January finals, making contacts and building expert networks for the 2014 CSUPERB-I2P Challenge. We’ve already lined up sponsors for the 2014 Challenge; Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative and the Tech Futures Group have signed on as sponsors (Many thanks! We’re open to more sponsors, of course!).
Oh – and did I mention that one company formed as a result of the competition and it has purchase orders from customers in hand? Other teams received about $50,000 in financing after the competition. So – there are true business outcomes from the CSU biotechnology entrepreneurial education challenge. We wish all 2013 CSUPERB-I2P student finalists the very best…our economy and society will depend on this next generation; something innovation pundits, college professors and basic researchers all agree upon! Lesson Learned: You can’t keep self-motivated, sharp and brave student entrepreneurs down.
*If you still are curious about all this & have access to Science magazine – David Malakoff wrote a nice article, “The Many Ways of Making Academic Research Pay Off,” in Science (15 February 2013) Vol. 339 no. 6121 pp. 750-753
**Because our “n” is very small, this blog post is categorized as “opinion.”
(The “lessons learned” format should be attributed to Steve Blank!)