How to create a successful startup – a university’s perspective

Idea concept

Since 2006, the University of Minnesota has created 67 startup companies and of those, only 18 percent are no longer in business. Compared to the national average, that’s pretty low. (Research out of the Harvard Business School says about 75 percent of all startups will fail.) And yet, universities provide a unique environment that may contribute to a greater likelihood of startup success. Here are three key ingredients that help to create startup companies with long-term viability.

World class technology

Research universities are knowledge-generating institutions that provide the ideal platform to pursue discoveries. The University of Minnesota has a long history of producing cutting-edge research and innovation in energy, life sciences, medical devices software, agriculture, food science, engineering and other industries. The U is home to such groundbreaking inventions as the pacemaker, the AIDS drug Ziagen and the flight data recorder.

Inventions that originate in a university lab continue to benefit from ongoing research and can be continually refined. Since university-developed technology is typically in a very early stage of development, it needs significant market-based input and improvements before it can be commercialized via a startup. Information gained from the lab and the marketplace is shared and leads to a better product in the long run. Continue reading

Startup ex machina

Photos by Andria Waclawski

Transdisciplinary awards fund projects targeting grand challenges

Global market

When great minds from different fields come together in one place, they find new and unexpected ways to solve large problems.

This concept, setting the stage for serendipity, sits at the heart of the MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, a set of nearly $6 million in awards recently announced by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research. MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) is an $18 million annual investment  by the state of Minnesota aiming to align research and industry strengths to solve grand challenges in four key areas: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and discoveries and treatments for brain conditions. The transdisciplinary award supports projects that cover at least three of these four areas and bring together faculty and resources from multiple disciplines.

“This award creates opportunities for our researchers to collaborate in exciting new ways and work beyond the bounds of their departments,” said Dr. Brian Herman, the U’s vice president for research. “Together, they will seek solutions to the greatest societal challenges of our time.” Continue reading

OVPR awards nearly $3 million to invest in research infrastructure

Gold shematic

The University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research is pleased to announce the recipients of its Research Infrastructure Reinvestment Program awards. The  awards are a one-time investment in university research infrastructure designed to ensure the viability of existing, critical facilities and research support services on all campuses.

The program, administered by the Vice President for Research, provided an initial $1.4 million investment with a required one-to-one match from the supporting colleges or centers. A total of 12 awards were granted, amounting to nearly $3 million invested in projects that will benefit research in at least seven colleges and three centers across the U of M.

The Research Infrastructure awards are one way the U of M ensures it maintains robust, state-of-the-art equipment even as federal funding for research stagnates nationwide. These improvements to research infrastructure support the university’s talented researchers as they explore new ideas, form interdisciplinary partnerships and make groundbreaking discoveries. Continue reading

University startup develops fast, accurate early disease detection

Jian-Ping Wang

Any patient who has waited days for a blood test to come back knows it can be a nerve-wracking experience. Imagine if you had a device the size of a graphing calculator that could give you accurate results in 15 minutes?

Through University of Minnesota’s Jian-Ping Wang‘s work, this technology is closer to becoming a reality. The electrical and computer engineering professor in the U’s College of Science and Engineering invented a biosensing device that quickly and accurately measures even a tiny quantity of a disease or health condition in a human sample. In March, the U helped form a startup company called Zepto Life Technology, where Wang now works as chairman of the scientific advisory board to make his invention portable, inexpensive and available across the world.

“It could fundamentally change the way people are taking care of themselves,” Wang said. “An individual’s health can be monitored in a comprehensive, personalized way. Diseases can be detected much sooner, leading to better health outcomes and ultimately, longer, healthier lives.” Continue reading

Learning from failure

Startups are not smaller versions of large companies. They do not unfold in accordance with master plans. The ones that ultimately succeed go quickly from failure to failure, all the while adapting, iterating on, and improving their initial ideas as they continually learn from customers. — Steve Blank, entrepreneur and founder of the Lean Startup movement

Study of Somali children among Top 20 in autism research

Autism awareness puzzle

In April, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, released its top 20 picks for the most significant studies in autism research in 2013. In the top 20 was the study of the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among Somali children, ages 7-9, in Minneapolis conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. The study’s report, “Minneapolis Somali Autism Spectrum Disorder Prevalence Project: Community Report 2013,” summarizes the findings of this study, the largest to date to look at the number and characteristics of Somali children with ASD in any U.S. community.

somali asd report coverFunded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and Autism Speaks, and managed by the Association of University Centers on Disability, the project reviewed more than 5,000 clinical and educational records of children ages 7-9 in Minneapolis during the 2010 calendar year. The study’s findings include:

  • About 1 in 32 Somali children in Minneapolis, ages 7-9 in 2010, was identified as having ASD.
  • Minneapolis Somali and White children were about equally likely to be identified with ASD (the prevalence estimate for White children was 1 in 36, with no statistically meaningful difference from the Somali prevalence).
  • Somali and White children were more likely to be identified with ASD than Hispanic and non-Somali Black children in the city (the Black non-Somali prevalence was 1 in 62, Hispanic was 1 in 80).
  • Somali children with ASD were more likely to also have an intellectual disability (e.g., IQ lower than 70) than children with ASD in all other racial and ethnic groups in Minneapolis, according to the findings.
  • The age at first ASD diagnosis was around 5 years for Somali, White, Black, and Hispanic children. Because children with ASD can be reliably diagnosed around 2 years of age, this indicates the need for further research to understand why Minneapolis children with ASD, especially those who also have intellectual disability, are not getting diagnosed earlier.

Continue reading

Informatics Institute announces fellowship recipients

Informatics fellows

The University of Minnesota Informatics Institute has announced the recipients of its Transdisciplinary Faculty Fellowship. This award positions recently promoted associate professors to provide leadership in transdisciplinary collaborative projects at the interface of informatics and an application area.

Six U of M faculty from across two campuses (Twin Cities and Duluth) and representing eight different departments and institutes were awarded fellowships:

  • Marshall Hampton, Ph.D. University of Minnesota Duluth, Swenson College of Science and Engineering, Department of Mathematics and Statistics
  • Adrian Hegeman, Ph.D. University of Minnesota Twin Cities, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences, Department of Horticulture and Plant Biology; Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute
  • Volkan Isler, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Twin Cities, College of Science and Engineering, Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Institute on the Environment
  • Mihailo Jovanovic, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Twin Cities, College of Science and Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Molly McCue, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Twin Cities, College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Veterinary Population Medicine; Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute
  • Pete Willemsen, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Duluth, Swenson College of Science and Engineering, Department of Computer Science

Continue reading

Nationwide study tests device to curb Parkinson’s effects

Deep Brain Illustration

A national 20-site clinical study led in part by the University of Minnesota and sponsored by Boston Scientific will evaluate a new implantable brain stimulator designed to quell the effects of Parkinson’s disease.

The “INTREPID” study will examine the safety and efficacy of the Boston Scientific’s Vercise DBS System, which uses a technique called deep brain stimulation to reduce Parkinson’s symptoms, which include involuntary shaking, bodily stiffness and slurred speech. The technique involves surgically inserting a node that directs electrical current to stimulate specific parts of the brain.

The University of Minnesota’s Dr. Jerrold Vitek, professor and head of the Department of Neurology, leads the study along with Dr. Philip Starr of the University of California’s Surgical Movement Disorders Clinic. Continue reading

New federal guidelines to streamline award distribution

US Capitol

The University of Minnesota’s Office of Sponsored Projects Administration (SPA) and Sponsored Financial Reporting (SFR)/the Controller’s Office are leading an effort to update university policies, procedures, electronic systems and training to meet new federal guidelines.

The changes will comply with Uniform Guidance, established by the White House Office of Management and Budget in December 2013 to streamline the requirements for federal awards. The guidelines aim to cut back administrative burden and financial waste and will replace OMB circulars A-21, A-110 and A-133.

A Uniform Guidance steering committee and seven work groups will lead the university’s transition. The work groups cover the following categories: conflict of interest, costing, HR/effort, post-award, pre-award/subaward, property and purchasing.

For details on these groups and the national effort, visit the Uniform Guidance webpage. Contact Associate Vice President for Research Pamela Webb ( or Assistant Controller Sue Paulson ( with questions.

Tech transfer brings cutting-edge research to market

Jian-Ping Wang, a prolific inventor and University of Minnesota engineering professor, has used his knowledge of nanomagnetics and spintronics to develop a system that detects the biological calling cards of diseases like HIV and cancer.

Nikos Papanikolopoulos, computer science and engineering professor, built a reconnaissance robot that could save lives by surveying hostile territory before soldiers or law enforcement enter the fray.

With help from the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization, Wang, Papanikolopoulos and other dedicated U researchers are moving their inventions from the lab to the market. Check out a recent story in the National Journal to learn how OTC’s business-savvy staff guide researchers in disclosing their inventions and starting companies around new technology.

Student researchers must have NIH IDs by October

The National Institutes of Health will soon require student researchers to hold eRA Commons IDs to participate in NIH-funded projects for one person month or more.

Starting in October, NIH will begin rejecting any continuation progress reports (RPPRs and 2590 forms) that do not contain these IDs for graduate and undergraduate students. A notice issued in August 2013 contains details on the policy change.

In preparation for the change, the University of Minnesota’s Sponsored Projects Administration has established more than 1,200 new NIH Commons IDs over the past 10 months for students that departments have identified as fitting the criteria. Principal investigators can visit SPA’s website for instructions on obtaining IDs for students who still need them and for access to both the single- and multiple-ID request forms. Contact Robert Delutri,, at SPA with any questions.