The Entrepreneurial Leap

This series of posts (finally) puts to words the approach, the ideas, and the tools developed and tested in the programs of the UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship.

Our work focuses on the first of three critical moments in the life of a new venture—the entrepreneurial leap.  This is the moment (that can take months, or more if not careful) when the original entrepreneurs make the decision whether to start a new venture or not, and take the first steps that, often unknowingly, send them down paths they may take years, if ever, to recover from.

The ongoing series of posts focusing on the entrepreneurial leap can be found by visiting The Entrepreneurial Leap >>

These posts are intended to describe this critical pivot point in the life of a new venture and to help aspiring entrepreneurs and managers see and make the right decisions at the right time.  Far too many of us make the choices without realizing it, only recognizing and suffering the consequences months or years later.

Consider the following stories,

A marketing manager took his boss’s encouragement and CEO’s vision to heart, and threw himself into launching a new business inside the $4 billion Office Products company.  Two years later, his project was generating $10 million in sales and made the cover of the annual report as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise declining business environment. Then the company pulled the plug. Marketing did not know how to manage the distribution channels this new venture required; Sales preferred to sell the old products to the old customers; and growth clearly depended on external partnerships the company’s current executives had no experience managing.

An entrepreneur launched a new website offering diet and nutritional support for patients with chronic diseases (diabetes, cholesterol, obesity). The application used patient and doctor input to generate health and wellness tips, easy-to-prepare recipes produced by professional chefs, and grocery lists. A loose-knit team of part time programmers and doctors pulled together $350,000 in investments, almost enough to complete the application.  New investors were willing to invest but, without proven customers or proven health benefits, they disagreed with the founders about the current value of the company.  Broke and unable to finish the application or move forward with clinic and patient trials, the venture derailed and the team went back to their day jobs.

A scientist working in her lab developed a new nanoscale material capable of dramatically increasing the ability to track the spread of cancer cells throughout the body. They approached their university’s technology transfer center, and were rebuffed because their research was “too early” and had not yet been reduced to practice (proven to work in in vivo tests). Because their grants did not cover performing such applied research, the scientist and her students went on to explore other related materials.  Two years later, another university announced their licensing of patents for this same technology to a major pharmaceutical firm for a significant licensing deal.

For these people, and many other aspiring entrepreneurs, the earliest decisions can be the most critical—and the most difficult to recover from. They are also the least understood decisions because they go unnoticed.  We rarely pay attention to new ventures until they have already reached a certain size or success, and it can be dangerously misleading to make recommendations based on only the survivors.

There is a famous story of a statistics professor brought in by the British Royal Air Force to determine how to protect their Spitfire airplanes from being shot down in World War 2.  He was asked to look at the returning planes and determine, from where the majority of bullet holes typically hit the planes, where the planes should be reinforced.  His insight was to put extra protection wherever there were the least holes.  Because the planes returned successfully, wherever they were hit was safe. It was the planes that didn't return that were hit in the most vulnerable spots.  

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For the past ten years, I have worked with large companies trying to grow organically by creating and launching new businesses from within; I have worked with startups trying to build businesses on shoestring budgets, and I have worked with some of the best scientists in the world trying to see their research reach the market.  The arenas may be different, but the challenges were the same.

Some ventures succeed wildly but the vast majority fall far short—this is true in all of these arenas. In trying to understand why, I came to see that the biggest challenge wasn’t a lack of good ideas and it wasn’t bad execution.  The biggest challenge was making the entrepreneurial leap.  Don’t be mistaken, leaping is not enough and we’ll talk about this and other fatal mistakes.  The challenge is in leaping well.

As a result of these experiences, I launched the Center for Entrepreneurship at UC Davis, a campus with many of the leading scientists in energy, health and nutrition, environmental management and remediation, veterinary medicine, and global health—yet an abysmal record in moving this science out of the laboratories. The parallels to the corporate innovation challenge were not lost on me.

In the center, we developed a program that brought science and engineering students from across campus and taught them about commercializing their research. This evolved into a flagship program, our Entrepreneurship Academies. The academies focus on moving university research out of its laboratories and into the larger world.  Each participant brings their own research projects—ways to produce fuel from biomass, purify drinking water, produce affordable drip irrigation, convert municipal sewage into biodegradable plastics, provide critical nutrients to premature babies, remotely diagnose cataracts—and spends an intensive week building a path from their ideas out to the wider world.

They don’t do it alone. Each scientist or engineer works closely with a set of entrepreneurs, angel investors, venture capitalists, patent lawyers, corporate research and foundation partners, all committed to helping move the best research out of universities and into the world to make a difference. In the way, our programs are not educational experiences so much as immersions into an entrepreneurial community and network, supported by the ideas and tools necessary to engage with this community.  

Over 500 university researchers from around the world have now graduated from our Entrepreneurship Academies.  Many have gone on to launch new ventures, and I’ll talk about some of these later. Many others turned their research into collaborative projects with industry partners. Some found their work was either too early to become leave the lab or commercially irrelevant.  These were all the desired outcomes. Those that launched new ventures came away from the academies with a plan and, more importantly, a network of mentors, advisors, lawyers, and even investors and co-founders that might have taken them years to build on their own.  Those who found corporate partners recognized early on that the best path to market for their ideas was through the established networks of existing firms.  Those who returned to their labs saw that their research was too early to become the core of a new venture or adopted by companies—and saved themselves months or years of pursuing an opportunity that was not there.

These programs serve as learning laboratories, and not just for the researchers finding their own pathways to innovation. In these academies, we’ve been able to develop and hone our approach—a set of ideas, and a toolkit—that enables people with an idea to recognize and make the entrepreneurial leap.  This approach applies equally to managers looking to generate, evalute and launch new businesses inside large companies, and to individuals and small founding teams looking to start their own companies.
In the following posts, I’ll do my best to share the lessons we’ve learned, and the ideas and tools we’ve developed.  Many of you readers have been part of this work, and I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.