Thursday, September 6, 2012

Building Bridges 101

By Keith McDowell

Building and maintaining bridges across rivers, creeks, and watercourses has always been a challenge for both engineers and local governments. Witness Riley Hill, one of my distant ancestors whose low bid in 1861 to construct a bridge across Caraway Creek in Randolph County, North Carolina, won him the contract. To his dismay, the bridge fell down. Of course, he tried to collect damages from the county court, but no such luck. Sad to say, but getting wet, figuratively speaking, seems to run in the family genes.

My own experience occurred on the evening of 2 December 2009 following a reception with the British Ambassador at the famed British Embassy Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC. Flanked by over 100 other guests, all dressed in their best business attire, my contingent emerged onto Massachusetts Avenue Northwest into an absolute downpour reminiscent of the biblical deluge. Competition for hailing a passing taxi was fierce as each party established territorial rights for a segment of the curb. Few were deterred from their aggressive behavior by the tidal waves of water splashed on the sidewalks by fast-moving traffic. And almost no one had any raingear or umbrellas.

Mercifully, after some thirty minutes or more of being fully baptized in the waters of Washington DC, a taxi picked up our intrepid crew and delivered us dripping wet to our hotel, unfazed by our grand adventure and eager for the morning to arrive. After all, we were endowed with the entrepreneurial spirit to succeed no matter the hardships. And what better venue to display that spirit than at the Annual University Startups Conference hosted by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2).

For me, the next morning began with my welcome speech since The University of Texas System was co-sponsoring the conference along with the University of Maryland. Little did the audience know that my shoes were still damp and stayed that way for the better part of the first day. Somehow the hotel hair dryer just didn’t get the job done.

Unlike many conferences, the annual NCET2 meeting in Washington is closely akin to an old fashioned Gospel revival meeting where saints and sinners come together to experience the entrepreneurial spirit. Led by the irrepressible and effervescent Tony Stanco, the director of NCET2, the conference proceeds as a sequence of fast-paced speeches and panels where “being there” is more important than what one says. It’s the ultimate networking experience among the big-time players as over 400 venture capitalists, startup entrepreneurs, university administrators, economic development specialists, federal SBIR managers, and a host of other characters gather to be seen. It’s the quintessential epitome of building bridges between and among a smorgasbord of people. And it’s all for the purpose of stimulating and accelerating the university startup enterprise.

But NCET2 is more than just an entity hosting a conference. According to its website and literature, “NCET2 connects investors, economic development organizations, public and private funds, and tech transfer professionals in building communities of innovation at universities.” Furthermore, “NCET2 promotes best practices in the creation and funding of university startups by supporting entrepreneurship and providing entrepreneurial education.”

Along with its annual conference, NCET2 has a number of activities designed to achieve its goals. These activities are collected and accessed under the umbrella Internet website Research Commercialization and SBIR Center. There are three principal components:

1.     Webinars, Online-advanced Courses and Workshops: These educational “how-to” sessions provide advanced training in “SBIRs, government research funding, university-industry partnerships, research commercialization, intellectual property, product development and early-stage funding.”
2.     University Technology Showcase Webinar Series: These webinars permit universities to showcase “ripe-for-partnership programs” to a network of decision-makers.
3.     Faculty Startup Program: This activity is designed to assist faculty and recently graduated students in the business of starting up a company.

Two features of the NCET2 website are notable. First, there is a listing of university commercialization activities with appropriate hyperlinks. These links serve as a one-stop-shopping tool to enhance networking and connectivity of all the players in the university startup enterprise. Second is a University Startup Map. This zoom-capable map of the globe displays a “balloon” for each startup in the database appropriately anchored to its location. When “clicked,” the balloon yields the name of the company. While the use of such “dashboard” features and technologies is still experimental with respect to their efficacy for enhancing entrepreneurship and communities of innovation in the innovation marketplace, it is an important step in the right direction to connect the dots.

Are we building through important entities such as NCET2 the proverbial bridge to nowhere or a bridge too far? Or is it a bridge over troubled water destined to fall down? Whatever the case may be, it is certain that an entrepreneurial bridge must be built, hopefully without the outcome in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. And next time, I’ll take an umbrella!

[Note: the image was copied from the University of Cincinnati Library.]

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