What I Learned Mentoring Undergraduate Scientist Entrepreneurs

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Last week I had the privilege and honor of helping to mentor six Cal State college entrepreneurial teams that were being judged on the merit of their discoveries for a grant from the National Science Foundation. Each team had four, but some teams had three and others two. The event was part of a larger symposium on Biotechnology within the CSU system.

The program was supported by the California State University systems CSUPERB program, and utilized the i-Corps program, with the Lean Start-up model advanced by such business luminaries as Steve Blank and Eric Ries. This uses a “business canvas model” to help validate key components of a start-up project, to get to a ‘minimum viable product’, test the proof-of-concept using a hypothesis (readily known to the science students), then creating a course correction (also known as a ‘pivot’) to differentiate and achieve the best probable customer validation and unique value proposition.

To be sure: These were more than just student projects. These students are part of supervised lab research, and many other students were present presenting their papers in posters and oral presentations – this is very real science. This is a carefully crafted program which joins elements of STEM/STEAM  - used for create and innovate discovery – and Linked Leaning initiatives – to bring the lab space to industry by presenting scientist entrepreneurs to commercialization.

I was part of a team of mentors and evaluators with one of the student cohorts, which included Manmeet Singh (a student at Sacramento State University in Biotechnology, and previous participant in a winning entry to the i-Corps challenge) and Tommy Martindale (Patent Attorney at the SDSU Tech Transfer office). We had six and 5 presented at the final on Saturday evening.

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They all did exceptionally well and there was much to be proud. Firstly, there are literally tons of research projects going on at the CSU system: good, solid research with possible product discoveries coming from quite a number of labs. For a person like me that concentrates their time in commercializing discoveries, this is a boon. That there are so many hidden possibilities within the CalState schools, is one thing, but that a great pool of scientists are being graduated from these institutions should be satisfying.

Take for example in two of the poster paper presentations I met Arnold and Luis – both in suits and bow ties, both from East LA and first from their families to attend university. Both were also from my alma mater CalStateLA. They had investigated ‘anti-freeze’ proteins in plants and insects, with implications for the agriculture industry (http://web.calstatela.edu/dept/chem/wen/research.php#newroles). Further, this project was co-located at Caltech in Pasadena, which as we’re all aware has serious research credibility.

Secondly, the teams were passionate about their discoveries and many of them were either in the process of patenting or considering that avenue. Some students had working prototypes. This is great for technology transfer and good for the economy, not to mention the relief of Parkinson’s patients, drought amelioration, those dealing with the symptoms of statin side-effects, and a host of other “pain points”. Nothing substitutes quite as much as passion.

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Thirdly: Just like in the real world, building a business model around a product can be time consuming and cumbersome, and then creating a value proposition around that, satisfying customer expectations, is grueling. Yet it was these students that could frequently pitch and articulate their idea more succinctly than most other start-ups I have worked with, that have much larger budgets, a half a dozen consultants and product on the market. These students pivoted early, and they pivoted often, refining their value proposition until they got it right. Start-ups (all start-ups) should really be letting the market define their product, rather than is so frequently the case, the other way around.

Finally, and this is more of a reflection of how humble and willing to learn (and get better at things generally, with respect to inquiry and engagement) these student entrepreneurs were, and more so than many mature and sophisticated client companies I have engaged with as a consultant, the students listened to advice and made appropriate changes to their products and discoveries as a result which made their presentations better. In fact, they asked for advice and went after all the industry mentors and panelists for their input into their products.

I would like this opportunity to thank the CSUPERB team: Susan Baxter, Stanley Moloy, and the SDSU team, including Shannon, Pam, and James. For the other mentoring team and industry leaders: Cathy, Tommy, Manmeet, Mark, Larry, Steve, Luanne, Karen Berg (Kansas State), David (UCSC) Sandra, Anna and Nola. It was great to be rubbing shoulders with such a distinguished group. And what can I say: I’m such an unapologetic booster for the CSU, for the teams I was able to help mentor late on Friday night: Safe Scope (Sacramento State), Poly Potable (Cal Poly Pomona), SRSP (Sonoma State), PD Analytics (Sonoma State), Akia (San Jose State) and Allen Team (San Jose State). Congratulations to you all. Go change the world!  It’s all yours!

Oh, and one of my groups got the special mention for the Tech Group: PD Analytics (Picture below):

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