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In the tech world, it’s usually the geeks who have the edge. The University of Hawaii’s startup accelerator has gone one better by getting real rocket scientists involved in launching their own tech startups.
XLR8UH, UH’s startup accelerator and “proof of concept center,” began last March when Vassilis Syrmos, UH’s vice president of research and innovation, announced an investment of up to $1 million per year for at least three years to help transform UH-affiliated innovations into businesses. With over $300 million in research funds pouring into UH Manoa in 2014 alone, it’s not surprising that UH faculty and students are cranking out some impressive technologies that could have commercial applications.
Startup accelerators have been around for years as a way to help promising businesses — usually tech-related — get off the ground. They typically provide some cash in exchange for a small share of the company. Then, over a few months, they provide varying amounts of education and connections, with the ultimate goal of “graduating” a business that makes money, or, more often, looks for additional investments to figure out how to make money.
The MorphOptics team, from left, Dr. Joe Ritter, Dr. Jeff Kuhn, and Ian Cunnyngham, stand behind a mirror fabricated using the high-quality/low-cost shaping process that they developed at UH’s Institute for Astronomy, and that they are now trying to turn into a business at XLR8UH.
Courtesy of XLR8UH
In the case of XLR8UH, the university is taking the accelerator model and applying it to UH-derived ideas and graduates and helping them develop prototypes, find their first customers, or determine if a market for their idea exists. Unlike most accelerators, however, XLR8UH is working with teams crammed with Ph.Ds who are working on concepts with potential far beyond Facebook and the App Store.
“With XLR8UH, the university is really investing in the talent and innovation that’s within the university system,” said Tarik Sultan, managing partner of XLR8UH, and who holds an MBA from UH’s Shidler College of Business.
It’s quite the innovative approach, and XLR8UH’s unique model is as novel as the technologies that it is helping to commercialize.
“Initiatives at other institutions generally offer connections, occasional funding, and office space,” Tarik added. “In addition to these resources, XLR8UH actually invests and takes an equity stake. Only recently are other university programs, such as Washington State University and University of California, starting to follow. With operations already under way, the University of Hawaii will literally be ahead of the pack in university investment commercialization programs.”
At a recent workshop for the XLR8UH startups, an intellectual property attorney explained patent law and gave examples of his work with companies like Expedia, Ticketmaster and others. The workshops, which happen every other Saturday during the program’s 16-week session, showcase the experience of the teams being nurtured.
Jacob Isaac-Lowry, founder of Flywire, listens to advice and feedback on his startup’s strategy during an XLR8UH workshop.
Here’s an example: During the presentation from Interstel Technologies, which is developing software for tracking satellites, the CEO, Dr. Trevor Sorensen, Eng.D. (that’s a Doctor of Engineering, thank you) joked that the company was, in fact, founded and staffed by real rocket scientists. If that weren’t enough, he pointed out that the team had over 70 years of combined space mission experience, and that he, literally, “wrote the book on space mission operations in the Manual for Space Mission Engineering.”
Rocket scientist or not, however, it is a challenge to make entrepreneurs out of people who’ve spent their entire careers in academia and government.
“What we do is help these teams learn startup methods, build a business model for their idea, and find product-market fit,” explained Omar Sultan, managing partner at XLR8UH and brother of Tarik, and who also holds an MBA from UH’s Shidler College of Business.
“We want to break away from the typical startup model of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ We want to help these teams break away from their focus on grants, and help them build real businesses on top of their great ideas.”
Being funded by UH does limit who can apply to the program. Currently, applicants must have a UH affiliation, such as being faculty, a student, alumni or staff.
One entrepreneur in training is Jacob Isaac-Lowry, who graduated with a master’s degree in medical robotics from UH this past spring. His startup, Flywire, created a tiny high-definition camera that can be placed on your body to record “video as you see it.” His team, spread virtually across Hawaii and Kentucky, hopes to win where similar consumer products, such as GoPro, aren’t looking: public safety, law enforcement, and medical applications.
When asked about why he chose to enter the XLR8UH program, Isaac-Lowry was quick to point to the experienced staff and the focus on building a business, not just an investor pitch.
“The main thing for us has been the access to experienced, capable advisors. I think the focus on building the business model more than building the concept is a great opportunity for all of us to deepen our understanding of the mechanics required to transition from a startup to a stable, growing enterprise.”
Dr. Milton Garces, founder of Red Vox, tinkers with the infrasound equipment similar to what he and his team hope to commercialize with help from XLR8UH.
Courtesy of XLR8UH
On purpose, XLR8UH provides a much richer experience than typical accelerators, where teams are forced to focus on their investor presentation and are left to their own devices for other assistance.
Assistance, however, is one thing that XLR8UH seems to be more than capable of providing. Isaac-Lowry added that XLR8UH adds “horsepower to our operations where and when it’s needed to help fill gaps.”
Flywire — and a few other XLR8UH teams — also have two things most startups don’t: a real, working product and revenue. Again, this highlights the level of experience and maturity that the teams bring to the program. That “maturity” extends to the gray hair visible in the room, as well. Whereas most accelerators are flooded with twenty-somethings, XLR8UH’s average age seems to be about twice that. Then again, there aren’t many twentysometing Ph.Ds with decades of experience.
If a few rocket scientists tracking satellites and a guy with a masters degree selling cameras still doesn’t impress you, other startups involved in this inaugural session for XLR8UH include:
• Red Vox, a four-person team, uses smartphones to detect nuclear, seismic, environmental and other dangers via infrasound.
• MorphOptics, with four Ph.Ds on its six-person team, developed a technology to “make big mirrors very inexpensively” and is aiming at the solar energy market.
• Diagenetix, with two Ph.Ds on its three-person team, created a handheld, smartphone-enabled DNA analyzer to detect and manage the spread of pests and disease for the agriculture industry.
“Obviously these teams are made up of smart people,” Omar Sultan added. “We’re turning them into smart entrepreneurs, too.”
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Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.