Incubating Green Ideas

Michigan Green Technology and Entrepreneurship Academy

It’s rare that a university professor, postdoc or PhD student would be found listening to lectures in the confines of a classroom, yet it perfectly describes the scene at the inaugural Michigan Green Technology and Entrepreneurship Academy. Green TEA, as it is commonly referred, is an innovative program designed to launch cleantech ideas out of the university lab.

The original academy was implemented by the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of California, Davis, initiating a genesis project to connect university research to the investment community in Central California. Through a community effort spearheaded by Ann Arbor based Huron River Ventures, Growth Capital Network and Grand Valley State University, the curriculum was licensed in Michigan for science and engineering focused scholars. Michigan has a strong research pool, competitive with notable university clusters such as USC, UCLA, and UC-San Diego, and it has untapped potential for commercialization (see table 1).

Participants gained an understanding of how and when to transform a lab project into a profitable business. The five-day conference articulated entrepreneurial concepts from intellectual property to product marketing, but it stressed three goals in a larger social agenda for Michigan.

Hosted by the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University, Green TEA was made possible by a $61,000 grant awarded to CEI from the Michigan Initiative for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (MIIE). A consortium of all 15 Michigan public universities, MIIE acts to foster a new knowledge economy based on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Green TEA helps researchers overcome environmental challenges

A university researcher’s exclusive dedication to science will stunt his or her chance for a great idea to reach the market. Scholars work tirelessly to generate the most advanced and efficient products in the world, but they are often too focused or resource invested to concentrate on the business value of their research. Similarly, public universities are concerned with the dissemination of knowledge and not the profitability of inventions, so faculty obligations will not align with a researcher’s commercialization schedule. To overcome this paradigm, Green TEA exposes researchers to business resources and professional networks that can add value to their idea.

Green TEA pairs business expertise with researchers’ scientific acumen

David Parsigian of Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn, reiterated that while academics provide a strong scientific presence on a team, business advisors must complement the technical component. Program organizers designed a rich, multifaceted curriculum to advance the understanding of entrepreneurial best practices to a group of innovators who do not regularly use the startup jargon. A week saturated with lectures, testimonials, teamwork and individual mentorship, culminated on the final day when each attendee presented his or her business pitch to the Green TEA advisors. Though the academic attendees may not drive the business side of a startup company, it was important to gain a general understanding of the entrepreneurial process. Speaking on the challenge to bring an idea to market, Dr. Dillip Mohanty, chemistry professor from the College of Science and Technology at Central Michigan University, commented, “it takes a lot more than just a great product or a great invention to make a viable company,” referring to the need for business resources.

Green TEA promotes environmental responsibility and economic growth

Green TEA is a catalyst for cleantech business. ‘Cleantech’ refers to a diverse set of products, services, and processes that result in a more cost effective, higher performing output with a smaller environmental footprint. Technologies associated with clean energy, advanced manufacturing and materials, and advanced automotive can be considered cleantech industries. As more emphasis is placed on triple-bottom-line outcomes, cleantech research becomes an increasingly appealing investment as seen by the formation of investment firms, like Huron River Ventures, who exclusively invest in cleantech companies. Green TEA is creating a platform to commercialize cleantech ideas thereby promoting environmental responsibility, creating Michigan jobs, retaining the current workforce and developing new businesses.

Commercialization assessments are typically needed to evaluate the market potential for a business idea. A panel discussion about technology transfer proved enlightening to many of the participants. “I think Green TEA can be a catalyst for business in Michigan because one of the biggest obstacles for faculty pursuing tech transfer of their ideas is simply missing the skills and knowledge of how to do it,” remarked Associate Chemistry Professor Anja Mueller of Central Michigan University. Tech transfer offices are typically located in educational institutes that produce enough research to sustain a commercialization program.

Three tech transfer officials from Michigan Technological University, University of Michigan and Michigan State University, elaborated on the processes involved with commercializing research, and it became apparent that there are standard expectations between each institution. Jim Baker, Director of Technology and Economic Development at Michigan Technological University, explained that “researchers must have a willingness to participate in the planning process.” Researchers who are actively involved and receptive to advice have a greater chance for success than those individuals who use the tech transfer office as a procedural formality. Informational sessions like the tech transfer panel complemented the Green TEA curriculum by minimizing the mystery of the commercialization process.

“We are trying to instill that entrepreneurial DNA into universities and the community,” commented Tim Streit, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Huron River Ventures. Michigan has not been as entrepreneurially active as startup hotspots such as Silicon Valley and Boston. Whether Michigan fell complacent during a strong manufacturing era or through the hardships of recessions, the entrepreneurial edge is dull. Green TEA has a social mission to elevate the awareness of entrepreneurship. It starts with 19 dedicated participants returning to nine Michigan universities with a resourceful disposition, a refined elevator pitch and a rolodex filled with entrepreneurs, investors, and business specialists.

The inaugural Michigan Green TEA was a success, but more Michigan university students and faculty need to get involved. Establish dialog with university researchers; encourage innovation; and engage in the entrepreneurial process.

The Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
The Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) in the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University, serves to champion and catalyze the vocation of entrepreneurship. The Center focuses on developing undergraduate entrepreneurial curriculum and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit within the student body. CEI is also involved in economic development to engage the business community through supporting high growth entrepreneurs and developing outreach and networking programs.

Huron River Ventures
Huron River Ventures is an early stage, cleantech investment firm exclusively funding Michigan-based enterprises. They are ideally positioned to take advantage of the convergence of two significant trends: Global Cleantech Growth and Michigan’s Economic Transition.

Growth Capital Network
The Growth Capital Network serves the mid-market business community by executing programs to connect growth companies with the necessary capital to accelerate their entrepreneurial vision. Resources and services include deal sourcing for capital and preparation for commercialization and fundraising.

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