Five Questions With …
Humera Fasihuddin is director of the Invention to Venture program at the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance. She works with high-potential student teams to help them secure funding. She also runs the NCIIA’s I2V workshops, which teach basic and advanced entrepreneurship, and manages BMEidea, a national student competition in biomedical engineering.
ID: What sort of practical information is offered at Invention to Venture (I2V) workshops?
HF: Experience, contacts, money and luck are just some of the ingredients cited by successful serial entrepreneurs, who speak to the mostly student audience at Invention to Venture workshops. They’re all things that come easy to someone who’s been in the working world for a few decades, not as much for students. Most students have never held a job, but their networks can span 1,000 or so Facebook friends and the folks they know back home. And, they’re always cash strapped.
That’s why I2V addresses a critical need for students who think they may want to pursue an entrepreneurial path. It gives participants a crash course in the skills of venturing, while introducing them to the key players on campus who can help make it happen.
I2V answers key questions, including: Do I really want to do this? How do I tell whether I’ve got a good idea? How do I ensure that if I build it, someone will buy it for more than my cost? Should I get a patent or should I just keep it a trade secret? When is a licensing strategy most appropriate? How do I pull together my A-Team and get it all financed? What are all the resources I can tap to make it happen?
Some have called I2V workshops a mini-MBA in Entrepreneurship. Now that’s a tall order. But where else can a student go for under $20 and hear the good, the bad and the ugly of starting a technology venture and meet the who’s-who around campus?
ID: How do you determine where and when to host I2V workshops?
HF: We target college campuses where there are passionate students and a desire on the part of faculty and administration to cultivate a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem. Why the campus focus? Students and faculty at are at the intersection of creativity, technology and pop culture. Kids today grew up on the Internet. They have young role models, like the founders of Google and Facebook. They have unprecedented access to information and are keenly aware of climate change, poverty and other pressing problems. They’re much more social-impact oriented and they’re taking action. So, we have an interest in making innovation possible at higher education institutions.
ID: Last year was a rugged for investment funding. What were some of your organization’s successes in 2009?
HF: Honestly, it hasn’t been an issue at the early stage when we see them. They’re tapping seed funding at their institutions, winning business plan competitions and spinning out cutting-edge technology from research universities. They’re operating lean – you can get far on a diet of Ramen and Red Bull – and they’re focused on building value.
Many have figured out how to tap non-equity financing like SBIR/STTR grants from government agencies, state funds and grant funding from us – NCIIA’s E-Team Grants program gives student teams up to $20,000 to help get their ventures off the ground. I would say our biggest success is that none of the venture teams I’ve worked with has closed its doors. They’re hanging tough. If not, they’ll have to choose between flipping burgers or going to grad school.
ID: You offer Invention to Venture workshops and Advanced Invention to Venture workshops. Can you talk about the difference between the two?
HF: People come to I2V to be inspired and armed with the tools to get started. Advanced Invention to Venture comes in when they’ve got an idea, perhaps technology to back it up and a team capable of executing.
We bring them off-site and lock them in a room for four straight days with experienced instructors and coaches to run their venture opportunity through the ringer. They come out the other end exhausted, exhilarated and with more clarity. In the eight weeks that follow, they work with an assigned coach and delve into workshop materials in detail. The whole experience helps them develop a winning strategy, a business model, a plan and the ability to articulate it.
Take the Ecovative Design team, for example. They graduated from AI2V and within a week pulled together a business plan that took first place in the environmental category of the Oxford Business Plan competition. They’ve since gone on to raise over a million dollars. We’ve recently branched out to offer specialized AI2Vs in sustainable international development and biosciences so that participants can address the specific nuances and challenges of their sector.
ID: As noted, 2009 was a challenging year for venture funding. Where do you see some of the more promising areas of startup investment going forward?
HF: We see four sectors getting a lot of traction in seed funding among collegiate innovators:
1) Clean and Green technologies, 2) Biomed, 3) Base of the Pyramid, or technologies that alleviate poverty and 4) Web or mobile technologies.
At NCIIA, we see the first three to great extent amongst grant applications primarily because our funding enables engineering, prototyping and patenting. At I2V and AI2V we also see many web and mobile upstarts getting financed. We expect to see many more teams involved in these areas wanting to work with NCIIA this year.
Contact Humera at [email protected]
Editor’s note: This article appears in the March 2010 print edition.