Reinforced support for entrepreneurs

Article by Karen B. Roberts Graphic illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase | Photo courtesy of Taozhu Sun June 30, 2021 Horn Entrepreneurship Proof of Concept Program Expands With Funding From United States Economic Development Administration

Graphic illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase | Photo courtesy of Taozhu Sun

Horn Entrepreneurship Proof of Concept Program Expands With Funding From United States Economic Development Administration

The University of Delaware’s Horn Entrepreneurship Program won $ 750,000 in funding from the United States Economic Development Administration’s Scaling Pandemic Resilience Through Innovation and Technology (SPRINT) Challenge to expand its successful proof of concept program (POC).

To date, Horn’s POC program has supported the formation of more than half of the deep tech startups that are currently active in Delaware’s innovation ecosystem. These are companies that strive to solve important problems by developing new solutions based on science or engineering. Companies supported by Horn’s POC program have created approximately 100 new jobs and raised more than $ 15 million in follow-up funding.

According to the US EDA, the SPRINT Challenge provides “the entrepreneurial support that communities and regions need to develop innovative, technology-driven businesses that will help address economic, health and social risks. security created by the coronavirus pandemic “.

At UD, the new funding will help expand the POC program and make it available to scalable community businesses in the Delaware ecosystem statewide.

Dive deeper into central areas

Commercializing a scientific discovery is no easy task. Just ask Santiago Rojas-Carbonell, co-founder and COO of Versogen, a UD spin-off that works to advance clean hydrogen production and more affordable research-based fuel cells. funded by the federal government.

According to Rojas-Carbonell, Horn’s financial support has played a key role in accelerating Versogen’s journey to commercialization. In addition, being paired with experienced chemical industry advisors provided access to strategic commentary on topics such as price negotiations, team dynamics and business-to-business relationships.

“Getting out of college can be difficult, and the POC program has enabled us to purchase the equipment needed to start operations,” said Rojas-Carbonell. “This gave the impetus to create our own lab and production facilities, while team mentoring opportunities helped train our technical team in customer discovery and product suitability. at the market.

For POC participants in the early stages of their journey, such as Taozhu Sun, industry mentoring can help budding entrepreneurs understand how to transfer ideas to market, find and discuss with potential business partners, and access the market. small business start-up financing. Sun is investigating the use of micro / nanobubbles as a promising disinfection strategy to eliminate foodborne hazards from fresh products with complex surfaces, such as lettuce.

“Working with my mentor keeps me excited and motivated about what I’m doing and has helped me develop my business skills,” said Sun, postdoctoral researcher at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “We are testing the technology now to see if it is viable or if we need to change direction. “

With the new EDA Sprint funding, Mike Rinkunas, Associate Director of Marketing Programs, is excited to further enhance the POC program to support the local and regional entrepreneurial / startup ecosystem.

“Our startups and founders need to take a Superman-style jump to take their idea from the lab to the market. And although we have built a good bridge, it is currently not crossing the chasm, ”said Rinkunas. “The truth is, some don’t. We’re trying to help them get the rest of the way. “

Closing this gap begins with an increasingly robust POC program to assess and assess intellectual property and its market potential, Rinkunas continued. It also requires creating inflection points earlier for entrepreneurs to generate value or fail quickly so they can iterate or pivot faster. One method of doing this is what Rinkunas calls “the murderous experience”. It’s like a stress test for an idea or a technology.

“What are the things that you should test quickly to find out if the idea or technology is working or failing that gives you massive ROI or a pivotal decision? Our goal is to help future founders find their most promising path as quickly as possible, ”said Rinkunas.

Another novelty of the POC program is the addition of mock board sessions. These sessions are designed to subject POC participants to rigorous assessment and conversation with outside industry advisors and venture capitalists so they can improve their ideas. During the pandemic, these sessions took place virtually via Zoom, allowing experts outside of Delaware to participate.

In a recent session, TRIC Robotics founder Adam Stager found himself in the hot seat to answer tough questions from potential investors in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. Stager was calling from California, where he is now testing chemical-free ways to help strawberry growers increase harvest and prevent pests using autonomous field robots – work he started as a UD doctoral student. . Stager described the encounter as intense, but said he left the meeting wanting more.

“POC’s new board of directors is a whole new kind of start-up experience. I’m really trying to check my business model and get it from concept to reality. Because of this, it’s easy to walk away from what’s important to the business, ”Stager said. “Maintaining a board of advisers that asks tough questions keeps me on track and helps me identify new opportunities. “

Strengthen UD’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

New facets of Horn’s POC program will also strengthen university-wide efforts to support innovators and entrepreneurs every step of the way to commercialization. But Rinkunas was clear that the programmatic elements were not developed in isolation. Prior to applying for EDA Sprint funding, Dan Freeman, Founding Director of Horn Entrepreneurship, called representatives from the Marketing Committee of the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnership (OEIP), the College of Engineering, and the Delaware Small Business Development Center ( SBDC) for their insight and perspective. The overarching objective: to ensure that the POC program harmonizes and complements – and not in competition – with other entrepreneurial resources available at the DU and in the local community.

“Integrating our programming in this way will allow UD to ‘go beyond its weight class’ by moving inventions from the lab to the market,” said Freeman. “It will also attract world-class creative talent and strengthen the University’s position as a national leader in innovation and entrepreneurship and as an engine of economic development for the state and the region at large. . “

For more information on the opportunities available through the POC program, contact Mike Rinkunas at [email protected]

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