Kevin White, PhD is Chief Operating Officer and Principal Scientist for Akron Ascent Innovations, an Accelerator company. AAI has developed a new approach to attach objects to various surfaces. The company’s "dry adhesive" technology is a non-stick adhesive that can secure (as well as reposition and reuse) everything from framed and unframed pictures and posters to high-capacity hooks to walls and other surfaces without damage. (Photo credit: Ann Hermes of Christian Science Monitor)
Running a technology-centered company is tough. Starting one is even harder, particularly when the approach is unique. Since our spin out from The University of Akron in 2015, we have expanded to 10 employees in two labs at the Akron Global Business Accelerator, secured over $1M in state and federal funding, and established a strategic investment and partnership with The Velcro Companies. We’re in a great place, but it took more than five years and we are still far from secure. Commercializing technologies out of universities is inherently high risk and requires active state and federal support in addition to outside investment and industrial feedback to have a fighting chance. Perseverance is necessary, but far from sufficient.
Know your market
In summer 2012, Professor Josh Wong at The University of Akron received a grant to participate in the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-CORPS program. Dr. Barry Rosenbaum of The University of Akron Research Foundation (UARF) agreed to join the program as his business mentor. Their group interviewed more than 150 potential customers to explore whether the concept of a dry adhesive technology met existing pain points in the market. The resounding answer was yes, which motivated them to establish AAI and seek to commercialize the first scalable approach to dry adhesion.
Mix it up
From 2013-2014, AAI received about $225k in state and federal support, including a NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Ohio Third Frontier Technology Validation and Start-up Fund (TVSF) Phase I awards. This support was critical for the validation of the technology concept, but didn’t allow for the hiring of any professionals to lead the company. The pivotal moment came in 2015 when, after almost a year of applications, justifications, and breath holding, AAI was selected for the NSF SBIR Phase II award. This allowed us to hire a core team, scale up the processing equipment, and establish an independent lab outside of the university at the Accelerator.
This didn’t mark the end of the search for funding; rather, it was the start of a new phase. Fresh off a stint as a post-doc at Kyushu University in Japan, I joined the team as the principal scientist and within a month was tossed in front of Angel investment groups with a new title of chief operating officer. It was my new responsibility to not only build the ship, but also steer it, staff it, stock it and fund it.
To mix metaphors, it took about nine months until the tires started to gain traction. The Northeast Ohio Student Venture Fund (NEOSVF) selected AAI for investment in February 2016. Shortly after came a well- received pitch to the ARCHAngels group, where we met future board member and investor, Tom Waltermire, retired CEO of PolyOne, a billion-dollar, publicly traded company.
The biggest win came through a strategic investment and partnership with The Velcro Companies. From the first meeting in March of 2016, there was clear alignment in spirit and focus. The Velcro Companies’ well-known hook-and-loop product is an attachment system made of non-sticky components – just like our dry adhesive technology (we use natural “loops” built into the surface of the wall). This alignment helped establish a level of trust and comradery. After rounds of exchanging samples and engaging in open and frank discussions, the Velcro Companies agreed to support AAI in several supplemental awards through the NSF SBIR program, and provide an investment to secure the matching funds. These programs allowed us to hire additional personnel to expand the company and begin pursuing a wider range of applications.
Never stop learning
Getting to this point has not been easy. We continue to further develop our products while building and maintaining relationships across the supply chain. Some of the things we’ve learned along the way include:
- Your value proposition has to be clear. Your technology could be the coolest in the world, but if there isn’t a market for it, it won’t matter. Engage with customers early on through research and testing. Without positive engagement, the technology will be stagnant. It has to connect with your target market.
- Your flagship product needs to be flexible. You need to be open to pivoting, but you also need to know your competency. As the project progressed, we learned more about the capabilities of our technology, as well as the limitations, which allowed us to focus on the best near-term opportunities and clarify our immediate value proposition.
- You must have alignment in your outside partners – not just in market potential and sales revenue targets, but in core values and competencies.
- You need to learn how to communicate with different audiences. First, determine who they are and then, how to talk to them about your product. It wasn’t until we figured this out and got the right people on our team that we were able to find a real partner.
The Accelerator and UARF were great partners along the way in helping us figure out where we wanted to go and how to get there. If you’re at a university and interested in finding out more about these types of funding, contact the technology transfer office or research foundation at your school. Start early and know your role in the company. It takes a team of committed individuals. No one has the right skill set to handle it all.
Know what you are hoping to gain, find out what it will take to get there, and seek out the best partners. Most importantly, remember the process will be long and arduous, but the pay-off could be worth it.