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‘Research to Revenue’: Interview with Don Rose, Director of Carolina KickStart

Don Rose is Director of UNC’s KickStart Venture Services, an entrepreneurial technology commercialization program in the Office of Commercialization and Economic Development. In addition, he is an Adjunct Professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that, he held senior leadership roles at a number of life science startups:  Metabolon (metabolomics, RTP), Deerac Fluidics (nanoliter dispensing, Dublin), and DataCentric Automation (high-throughput crystallography, Nashville). Don’s impressive experience also includes positions at Catalysta Partners (now Hatteras Venture Partners), Cartesian Technologies, Glaxo Wellcome (now GSK), and Hewlett-Packard Laboratories. Dr. Rose received his Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry and BS in Nutrition from the University of North Carolina. He holds six US patents and has published eight papers, two book chapters, and one book; Research to Revenue: A Practical Guide to University Start-ups.

What is Research to Revenue all about?

Research to Revenue presents the first-ever comprehensive guide to understanding, starting, and managing university startups. The book gives a thorough, process-oriented, and practical set of guidelines that cover not only best practices but also common–and avoidable–mistakes. It details the key factors and components that contribute to a successful start-up, explain what makes university start-ups unique, delineate the steps of building and managing them, and describe how to foster and maintain start-ups at a university. Written for faculty and staff working on campus, tech-transfer officers, university administrators, and venture capitalists unfamiliar with university structures, Research to Revenue ensures that any reader unfamiliar with technology commercialization and entrepreneurship will understand the fundamentals of the process, including intellectual property rights, fund-raising, and business models. This work is an invaluable resource for the successful formation and well-managed operation of university start-ups.

How did you first become interested in writing on the subject of university start-ups?

I started a program at the University of North Carolina (Carolina KickStart) to help support the creation, launch, and growth of startup companies, based on university research. In interacting with faculty, tech transfer officers, and research administrators, I realized there was a significant knowledge gap in the area of entrepreneurial technology commercialization. I had a faculty member in my office the other day with an idea for a startup. After going through a number of options, he asked if there was a website where he could learn more about the startup process. I handed him a book!

What do you think are the biggest trends and challenges facing entrepreneurial universities?

University tech transfer offices have traditionally been focused on licensing technology to established companies and left startups to faculty who happened to find an entrepreneur (or worse, started the company on their own). Today, TTO’s are taking a more active role in startups for various reasons. First, many young faculty are expecting to be involved in a startup that relates to their research. Secondly, startups provide an “incubation vehicle” for maturing and de-risking technologies that are too early for licensing to established companies. Third, by supporting startups, universities are helping to build better companies, who will be better licensees. Finally, university startups can act as an economic development engine since many startups are created near the university and grow within that region.  The challenges include the usual suspects: talented management willing to take on a high-risk venture and gap funding for technology development, that is, validation, proof of concept, or prototyping.

Are there any texts you found influential when compiling your own?

Scott Shane’s Academic Entrepreneurship was very illuminating. Scott spent significant time at MIT trying to understand the key features of technology that made it more suitable for a startup as compared to licensing to an established company. His conclusions were not immediately intuitive but became clear through his research findings.

Have you written any other books? On the same subject matter, or different?

I’m working on two other books. One is a teaching companion to Research to Revenue. I’ve taught entrepreneurial tech commercialization to a number of students (MBA’s, science PhD’s) and there’s a need for a curriculum guide in this area that’s distinct from R2R. I’m also working on another book totally un-related. I’ve been doing endurance sports for years and I’m writing a book targeting the mid-lifer who decides they need to change their lives to be more fit. The tentative title, somewhat derivative of R2R, is “Average to Epic: A Mid-Lifer’s Guide to Endurance Sports and Life-Long Fitness”.

Are you currently working on any projects?

I’m working a several projects. The first is to more firmly established our Graduate Certificate in Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship. This nine-credit hour certificate is targeted to graduate students, primarily in the sciences, who want to better understand the commercial translation process. The second project, that’s still in the early stages, is an angel network of university alumni and parents. This network will connect these angels with university-affiliated startups seeking angel investments. We anticipate these startups to be both campus-born (IP-based or student led) as well as alumni-founded from around the country.

What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

My goals with the book were several fold. First, I wanted university faculty to be good consumers and an effective participant in the startup process. Many either take a passive, or sometimes passive-aggressive role, in the process and are shocked when they finally understand things like the effect of dilution. Others take a more active role but make bad decisions that have to be unwound down the road (e.g. no vesting for a CEO). By the same token, I’m not encouraging faculty to leave their day job and become CEO or CSO of their startup. The perfect partnership is a great science combined with great entrepreneurially-minded and experienced leadership. My second goal was helping first time entrepreneurs, or first-time university spinout entrepreneurs, better navigate the process. By better understanding the incentives of a university, they can be better prepared for the licensing negotiations. By understanding the motivations of faculty, they can better manage the CEO-faculty founder relationship.  My third goal was to de-mystify the process for tech transfer officers and research administrators. As universities take a more active role in the startup process, they can only manage things they understand. Did I achieve those goals? Time will tell.


You can find out more about Research to Revenue;a Practical Guide to University Start-Ups, here. If you would like to purchase Research to Revenue, it is available on Amazon in both print and kindle versions.


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