Building momentum from our 2021 Deshpande Symposium Award
By: Elyse Ball, Executive Director, University of Akron Research Foundation
Momentum is important in the world of entrepreneurship. In fact, it’s so important that it’s often mentioned among other key M’s, like market demand, motivation and money. Momentum can also be critically important for entrepreneurship programs, like those we run at the University of Akron Research Foundation (UARF).
We were honored to receive the 2021 Deshpande Symposium Award for Exemplary Practice in Technology Commercialization. The award centered on our I-Corps Site program, which has been running since 2013 and is atypical in that it supports both university and community entrepreneurs. However, we had no idea how much momentum this would create for us, nor the chain of exciting events it would kick off.
The Deshpande Symposium Award got more real when the physical trophy arrived on our campus and we were able to present it directly to University of Akron’s President Gary Miller. This led to highlights in newsletters and on social media, as well as an article in Cleveland Crain’s that increased momentum for innovation and entrepreneurship on UA’s campus and in the greater Akron community.
UARF Executive Director Elyse Ball (left) and UARF Senior Fellow Barry Rosenbaum (right) present the Deshpande Symposium Award for Exemplary Practice in Technology Commercialization to University of Akron President Gary Miller
At around the same time, two UARF spinout companies exited to strategic acquirers. One company, Akron Ascent Innovations, was formed after participating in one of the first National Science Foundation I-Corps Teams programs. The other company, Akron Surface Technologies Inc., was led by a mentor they worked with during our I-Corps Sites program.
With the support of national recognition by the Deshpande Symposium and the validation of two spinout exits, UARF sought and received major grant funding to expand the I-Corps program from 60 to 120 teams per year. UARF has worked with the University of Toledo to run a joint I-Corps Site program, recruiting teams from across Northern Ohio. That effort is now expanding to include teams from across all of Ohio. Our Spring 2022 I-Corps cohort includes teams from University of Cincinnati, University of Dayton and Miami University in Southwest Ohio. We are building systems and processes to accommodate even more participant teams that aren’t directly affiliated with our universities. Customer discovery benefits entrepreneurs of all types.
UARF’s growing momentum also led to the opportunity to improve and expand our STRIDE Accelerator, which serves hard tech companies that have graduated from an I-Corps program. Even though the STRIDE Accelerator is only two years old, it was selected for a prestigious Small Business Administration Growth Accelerator Fund Competition Award. Importantly, the STRIDE Accelerator serves a diverse population of entrepreneurs; 71% of companies are women- or minority-led.
Finally, UARF is integrating the basic principles of I-Corps – customer discovery – in all that we do. Throughout 2021, UARF conducted a series of interviews with stakeholders on- and off-campus to understand their needs. As one example, stakeholders almost unanimously requested a single university point of contact they could reach out to if they weren’t sure who to call. UA leadership created this role and immediately began fielding inquiries and making connections. Similarly, stakeholders identified opportunities to build on UA’s polymers expertise to address sustainability and end of life reuse. A Polymers Industry Cluster, led by the Greater Akron Chamber, is moving these ideas forward with involvement from UA.
Following the same principles, UA also set up regular check-ins with key stakeholder groups to get feedback on key campus challenges, including COVID-19 safety. The goal is to change the university culture to focus more on getting out of the classroom, office or lab to understand those around us.
Now, that we have this momentum, we aim to keep it going by using our deep understanding of our customers’ needs to build and expand programs to serve them.