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Launch a Startup or Apply for Jobs After Graduation? One Ph.D. Student’s Story.

August 3, 2016

Helicon Chemical Company logoHelicon Chemical Company is a B2B startup co-founded by President and CEO David Reid, Ph.D., a materials scientist and engineer. Reid launched two companies while he was a doctoral student in Sudipta Seal, Ph.D.’s lab. He shared his experiences of what he has learned through his startup journey so far.

Tell us how this process began for you as an entrepreneur.

I founded Helicon around the time I was wrapping up my Ph.D. at UCF.  Prior to founding Helicon, I was involved in another startup company called nSolGel with my advisor, Dr. Seal. nSolGel was founded within the first couple years that I joined UCF. At the time, I did not know much about the entrepreneurial process. I was involved in developing and scaling up the technology, and had the opportunity to give presentations to potential investors and customers. nSolGel is still doing very well, and this experience showed me that the technology we’re developing at UCF can have significant commercial potential.

During the final year of my Ph.D., I had to make a decision about my future: am I going to apply to jobs within academia or within industry? I had completed all my course requirements, but I heard of a course offered by Dr. Tom O’Neal [Associate VP for Research & Commercialization] on technological entrepreneurship. I was intrigued and thought, I’m going to take this course and see what this is all about.

In that course, one of our projects was to review the UCF’s patent portfolio, select a particular patent, and develop a business plan for commercialization. After going through that process, I really enjoyed it and thought that this is something that I could actually do. Around the time that class ended, I decided to look into UCF’s patent portfolio and start a real company. So Helicon was born out of that experience.

What UCF resources did you use?

The resources and early stage mentoring advice that came out of the Venture Accelerator Lab were extremely helpful. One of the first decisions that I made once the company was founded was to start writing proposals for SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] funding. The Venture Accelerator Lab not only introduced me to the SBIR program, but also helped me in writing my first proposal. They helped with market research, and walked me through registering in the countless databases to establish the company’s presence with the government.

What UCF has done recently with the Business Incubator [where Helicon is currently located] is really incredible. Having a laboratory facility here is a huge asset to a small company like ours. It gives us capabilities we wouldn’t otherwise be able to have.

What technologies did you license? What stages of development are they currently at?

We licensed a number of patents and IP [intellectual property], all related to nanocomposites and nanotechnology, which allow us to produce new materials that were not previously possible.  Based on the Technology Readiness Level scale, we’re at about a TRL 5 for the product, meaning we have a functioning prototype that has been tested in realistic environments.  We are in the process of scaling it up and moving toward full scale demonstrations of the product.

What are some ingredients for success when it comes to launching a startup?

  1. Have a strong founding team.

The founding team is one of the most critical components. That doesn’t only include who you are bringing with you to do the work as part of your company, but also your broader team—your legal team, accountants, mentors, etc. Almost every day you’re going to encounter situations and problems you’ve never encountered before, and if you have those mentors and resources in place where you can go to ask for help, ask questions, bounce ideas off of, and get guidance, then you’ll find yourself making much better decisions as you go along.

  1. Have expertise in the technology and do your market research homework.

Before you decide to license IP, or even before you decide to found the company, you want to spend a lot of time understanding exactly what the technology is, what the product that you envision is going to be, and the potential of that market. [This could save] you from spending a significant amount of your time and resources pursuing something that might not be the best choice for what you’re doing or the technology you’re licensing.  Choosing the right first product and first market for that product is a key to early success.

How do you see startups that use university technology different from other types of startups?

Most technologies coming out of universities are not finished products. But when you license a technology from a university vs. trying to come up with something similar on your own, you have a huge leg up.  Technology from a university has most likely had several years of R&D put into it by top experts in the field. That level of work, and the money that is invested into university research, is something that a startup company really can’t replicate. Also, the facilities and the capabilities of the university would far exceed what a nascent company would have on its own.

The other thing is the credibility that’s given to your technology when it has come out of a university lab, and the university name associated with that. It means that you have expertise supporting your idea. You’re not just proposing something out of the blue—you’re proposing a concept that has come out of a top research institution.

If there is one piece of advice that you would give an entrepreneur, something you wish you had known before you launched a startup—what would that be?

The one thing that I wish I had known I needed to do when I launched Helicon was to learn about everything outside of your area of expertise. From day one, learn about accounting, learn how to read a general ledger, learn how to understand a legal agreement. Because if you’re the CEO of a company, you can hire people and bring people on board to do all of those tasks, but you need to understand what everyone is doing, and the earlier you get started, the better.

Student-founded companies like Helicon Chemical Company utilize UCF innovations to impact their industries and the world. To learn more about startups at UCF, contact Julia Roberts.

Written by Deborah Beckwin