Resident Entrepreneur Builds New Venture Pipeline

UBC Reports | Vol.
51 | No. 7 |
Jul. 7, 2005

By Hilary Thomson

We’re redefining business ventures at UBC — that’s the message UBC’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence Gary Albach is sending to campus researchers and venture capitalists, and both investigators and investors are heeding the call.

Albach, who joined the staff at the University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) in 2004, heads the New Ventures Program that helps foster commercialization of ideas. He is working with UBC’s Sauder School of Business, UBC Treasury, and the Industry Research Assistance Program, a National Research Council of Canada initiative.

A key component of the program is helping the campus community broaden its understanding of what a new venture looks like.

“There’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit here,” says Albach, who started UBC’s first technology-based spin-off company, Vortek Industries Ltd. in 1976. “We’re trying to tap into some valuable ideas that weren’t being recognized because they didn’t fit the criteria for commercialization.”

The university has traditionally commercialized research via a “market push” where innovations were patented and “pushed” out to markets via a new spin-off company. Although the approach has been successful, many good ideas did not fit the key criterion of patentable research and got left behind.

Albach is encouraging a proactive or “market pull” approach, where market need drives the commercialization. If market research shows an idea to be viable, a new company is formed to acquire and commercialize the technology. Also known as affiliation-based opportunities, the strategy encompasses ideas that are not patentable, such as information technology research that finds innovative ways to calculate or problem-solve. The approach creates a much larger pool of ideas to consider for commercialization and ties in with what venture capitalists are looking for, says Albach.

In this non-traditional route to commercialization, UBC faculty or associates form a new company that draws on the technical expertise of the researcher, but does not involve patents or licenses as traditionally defined in UBC’s spin-off criteria.

To raise awareness about these new approaches, Albach has been giving workshops for faculty, staff and students. The first workshop series was held over a two-week period in March 2005 at the Sauder School of Business. More than a hundred researchers in all disciplines learned about what it takes to move an idea to market.

The sessions also served to identify technologies currently ready for licensing and investment. This spring, Albach and a group of researchers presented their ideas at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network-Technology Showcase in Bellevue, WA. Presentations included information on a technology called scodaphoresis, developed by Andre Marziali and Lorne Whitehead in the department of Physics and Astronomy. The technology isolates rare DNA molecules to provide high purity, concentrated DNA samples for medical applications such as early cancer detection.The innovations were well received by the gathering of “angels,” early stage investors who can invest as much as $500,000 in new ventures. Albach is confident he can find at least six such “investable” ventures — a new ventures pipeline — before the end of his tenure in September 2006.

Other strategies to foster entrepreneurship include promoting UILO services such as “start-up in a bag” — a package of legal, accounting and governance support for new ventures. Also, UILO will pair faculty members with investors and industry executives to form venture teams that will allow researchers increased access to capital and mentorship.

Another cross-organization initiative involves placing faculty members as associates directly within venture capital funds. This model reflects a successful project of venture team pairing done at the University of Washington and Madrona Venture Group of Seattle.

An advisory board of local business people with financial, technical or legal backgrounds oversees the New Ventures Program. The board determines if a venture is ready for investment and if it is, helps to guide the process.

Albach feels the urgency of finding investable ventures and new investors before his tenure is finished, but truly loves being involved in launching innovative ideas.

“Most of my job is helping people see the potential of their ideas and the confidence to explore that potential,” he says. “Failing is not the problem. Failing to start — that’s the only problem.”

For more information on the New Ventures program, visit Albach also highly recommends “The Art of the Start,” a 2004 guide to start-ups by Guy Kawasaki.