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

Startups, Start Here: UCF Students and Faculty Team Up to Commercialize Their Invention

July 20, 2016

FeynmanNano logoFeynmanNano is a student-run, B2B startup company that creates nanostructures originally designed to make solar panels more efficient in producing energy. This technology was developed at UCF by two of the company co-founders – UCF associate professor Jayan Thomas, Ph.D. and engineering student Brandon Carpenter. UCF graduate and mathematics major Jonathan Wachob is the third co-founder. The team has used several of the entrepreneurial resources available at UCF, including the Blackstone LaunchPad, the I-Corps program, and the Office of Technology Transfer.

Earlier this year, Feynman was selected as one of four finalists in the Cade Museum Prize for Innovation, an annual competition for early-stage inventors and entrepreneurs in Florida.

Carpenter is Feynman’s Chief Operating Officer and he shared his experiences as a student entrepreneur and what he has learned through his startup launching journey.

What is your background? (i.e., education, business experience, etc.)

I had an aerospace/mechanical engineering dual major. Recently, I decided to just stick with mechanical engineering, just because there are not enough hours in the day.

All the business experience I’ve received has been from failing in the real world, learning the hard way, and having mentors telling me when I’m wrong.

How did this startup launching process begin for you as an entrepreneur?

When I first came to UCF, I was connected with the Blackstone LaunchPad, a few months before it opened, through the [former] associate director, Pam Hoelzle. She worked with us one-on-one, with me and my co-founders—not for Feynman, but for another venture that I’m still involved in [Fourier Electric].

We met with her to go over what it takes to even think about starting a company, because all we had was an idea. Within the first three meetings, she completely changed everything we were doing, just by asking us the right questions.

We worked with her for about two years. We went from knowing nothing about business and only having an idea to securing our first round of investment and having four or more partnerships with hospitals including Florida Hospital. After working with Pam, she offered us jobs—so I actually work as one of the coaches at the LaunchPad.

The Blackstone LaunchPad taught us those fundamental skills that we needed. They also opened up a lot of opportunities for us in terms of getting connected into the industry, networking, and meeting VC groups. They even helped with our first introduction to Florida Hospital.

What technologies have you licensed from UCF? What stages of development are they currently at?

It’s a polymer nanoimprinting method. Basically, it’s an economical way to build plastic nanostructures. It’s been demonstrated in the lab; however, taking it to an industrial scale can be done very quickly as long as we can get the necessary funding.

How was it determined that creating a startup was the best way to get these inventions to the marketplace? Walk us through the process of creating a startup company.

Ultimately, Dr. Thomas, myself, and our third co-founder—we all decided to license the technology to our company because of our experience and connections in the industry. We wanted to see the project through. We wanted to take it from its infancy to where it’s out in the real world doing something.

What are three (or more?) ingredients for success when it comes to launching a startup?

  1. Coffee.
  2. A solid team.
  3. Mentors.

In addition to the mentorship we received from Blackstone LaunchPad, we also received mentorship through the UCF I-Corp program. It was an intense program in terms of the amount of work, but through their mentorship on the importance of customer discovery, we used customer feedback to pivot from marketing the technology to solar panel companies to the medical industry. We realized the solar panel companies weren’t interested in having another coating, but we identified another use for the nanotechnology in medical device applications. This was an important transition for us and we wouldn’t have gotten there without the guidance of the I-Corps team. They helped accelerate our company to where it is today, as well as connected us with people in the medical industry that have helped us grow our business.

Was there anything about starting a startup that you found to be intriguing, ironic, or surprising?

I could probably write a book to answer that question. First, I’d say it was surprising how hard it actually is, compared to how it’s portrayed. You have to quickly learn how to be resilient in the face of constant rejection—meaning that for every one success, you have nine failures that follow. But it’s that one success that can keep you going. You also have to learn to be able to take criticism constructively and to not get easily discouraged.

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

One key distinction is they would have a clear advantage because they would have the university’s weight behind them. Even if you’re talking with investors, pitching a funding proposal—when you’re able to say that UCF, one of the largest universities in the US, has their hand in the honey pot, it makes a difference as far as credibility, especially if you’re a student.

As a student, what do you think makes UCF unique in how they approach entrepreneurship?

I have friends all over, attending different universities, and UCF is definitely unique in the aspect that there’s so much research here. Also, the entrepreneurial ecosystem has really been growing here over the last two and a half years. Everything’s [the entrepreneurial resources] becoming more streamlined and consolidated, and departments on campus are working together to really push this. So because of that, there are students that are going through these [entrepreneurship] channels and becoming successful.

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

Almost all of the most important lessons I’ve learned was through making mistakes. Feynman and Fourier were not my first two startups. There were probably two or three earlier projects that were terrible, unspeakably terrible. But if anything, they serve as learning tools. From those failure experiences, we were able to learn enough where, once we had mentorship, we were able to actually go and be more successful.

Student-founded companies like Feynman Nano utilize UCF innovations to impact industry and the world. To learn more about startup resources at UCF, contact Julia Roberts.

Monitoring the Stress on Bridges, Buildings, Dams, and Tunnels Can Prevent Tragedy

July 11, 2016

When we wake up in our homes, travel down highways in our cars, and arrive at work or school buildings, we expect these engineered structures to be sturdy and strong to keep us safe. We usually don’t think twice about the integrity of these structures until they start to show wear and tear, such as when we drive over a pothole or when a bridge collapses.

Structural integrity risks and failures are a result of incremental changes over time. Monitoring these slow changes can prevent fatalities and catastrophes. Associate Professor Hae-Bum “Andrew” Yun, Ph.D., in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering at UCF, has created a new system that monitors these incremental changes that can cause structural failure, before they become fatal. You can read more about Yun’s research and background in this month’s Faculty Feature.

Only counting dams and bridges, there are millions of structures to monitor within America’s infrastructure. For example there are:

  • 75,000+ dams
  • 600,000+ bridges
  • 4 million+ miles paved roads
  • Approximately 3.8 to 5.6 million buildings

Phenomena such as cracks forming in walls and ice forming on roads occur at a slow, seemingly imperceptible rate, but other environmental factors such as temperature and precipitation can hide these slight changes, hampering efforts to effectively monitor important changes. Yun’s structural health monitoring method is able to cut through the “noise” of the other environmental factors to effectively detect and monitor these subtle changes more accurately, using fewer sensors, leading to better maintenance and incident prevention.

These small changes that can lead to big problems occur in patterns, so this technique uses an auto-modulating pattern (AMP) detection system. This method can be used on bridges, buildings, dams, and tunnels whose structural behavior is significantly affected by the ongoing changes in the immediate environment, including changes in the mixture of temperature, climate, humidity, etc. The motivation of AMP is to detect tiny but important changes in sensor readings, which is directly related to structural health. It can be used independently, or it can be used within a larger detection unit to trigger alerts for when a structure is at risk of failing.

Within this system, several types of sensors can be used such as acceleration, displacement, slope, strain, temperature, and velocity to measure the risk of structural stress using various important factors over time. Detection of small changes can be improved by the collection of raw signals from these sensors over time, to identify changes in hidden patterns.

In order to get to market, this technology needs you. To learn how to either start a company or add this technology to your product line, contact Raju Nagaiah.