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Q&A talks about Accelerate UConn, a new entrepreneurship program at the University of Connecticut, with Michelle Cote, managing director of UConn's Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and UConn business professor Timothy B. Folta.
Q: Accelerate UConn is a new program at the UConn School of Business. What is it, and what are some of its primary goals?
A: Accelerate UConn (AU) is a university-wide program supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and is operated as a partnership between the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), Technology Commercialization Services and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), which is housed in the school of business. NSF funds such programs to help spur the commercialization of scientific research. Our goal at UConn is to provide students and faculty from across the university with a new set of tools they can use to assess the market opportunity for a new technology, product or service.
Our goal is to encourage faculty and researchers to reach out to students for support in the process of determining market viability. We also want students reaching out to faculty for technical expertise, and other companies with deep ties to UConn, such as members of the Technology Incubation Program, to get involved by working with either faculty or students. We also want to encourage the business community to get involved. Each team is required to have an experienced mentor who can help the team get acquainted with the particular industry that they are hoping to enter. We hope that this role provides UConn alumni and other members of the local business community with an opportunity to get involved.
Q: Accelerate UConn, as your website explains, helps faculty, students and researchers determine the commercial potential for new ideas, technology and products and develop strategies for bringing their innovations to the marketplace. Is that too broad of an audience for what seems to be your limited funding of $100,000 from the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps?
A: Accelerate UConn is certainly an ambitious program. However, we're able to run the program extremely efficiently for a couple of reasons.
Part of the award that comes from the I-Corps grant is access to the curriculum developed by the National Science Foundation specifically for this program. We have also been able to join a network of regional and national leaders who have adopted this approach to entrepreneurial education and skill development, and many of them have assisted us in the process of getting the program up and running. We are also reaching out to UConn faculty with similar training to help lead modules of this program for us. Technology Commercialization Services and CCEI staff have also dedicated a significant amount of their time to help get the program's infrastructure in place.
A broad audience is expected and needed because the structure of the program encourages entrepreneurial team formation with varied roles for faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and industry mentors. While the breadth of audiences may seem difficult to serve, each of them brings unique skill sets required by the program.
Q: The program is going to focus on technology concepts that “are likely candidates for commercialization.” What are the metrics for determining if concepts are candidates for commercialization?
A: We want to focus our resources on entrepreneurial teams that have already done some of the leg work needed to determine the market potential for their product or technology. We want to know that the products or technologies being supported by these efforts have a high potential to serve a real group of people in a real and meaningful way.
The LeanLaunch methodology used in the program relies heavily on a process called customer discovery and validation, which includes a series of one-on-one interviews with potential customers, partners and stakeholders. Participants will be expected to draw out critical information about the viability and marketability of their product, and report back on the results of those interviews throughout the program.
Key indicators of participation will include the number of interviews conducted, along with the number of insights gained in the process.
Accelerate UConn applications will also be evaluated by external reviewers consisting of experienced entrepreneurs with no stake in the program. Each has specific technical expertise in the areas needed to judge the commercial viability of the products or technologies being proposed.
Q: What type of support exists for those who participate after they complete Accelerate UConn? Is there a next step in the process for them?
A: NSF envisions the program as a first step towards additional federal support for further technology and customer validation. CCEI is also launching a fellowship program in the summer of 2016 to help extend the runway of support for entrepreneurs from across campus. Recipients of fellowship awards will receive $15,000 and be expected to dedicate most of their summer to the advancement of their venture. Programming and support will be available at CCEI's location in East Hartford, and will be focused on helping entrepreneurs complete their business model and develop internal capabilities to bring their product to market.
The Office for the Vice President for Research, Technology Commercialization Services also provides next-stage support for Accelerate UConn graduates. Their SPARK program provides proof-of-concept funds to eligible entrepreneurs, and the Technology Incubation Program (TIP) provides high-tech lab and office space, along with entrepreneurial programming, and services.
One of the built-in next steps in the I-Corps experience for Accelerate UConn participants is participation in the NSF's National I-Corps program. Several seven-week cohorts are held across the country each year. In this program, the concept of customer discovery is extended past Accelerate UConn's emphasis on market potential and into determining the internal capabilities, partnerships and cost centers needed to provide the product and technology to the target customers. Participation in the national I-Corps program also comes with a $50,000 stipend.