Growing New Ventures at UConn

UConn's new director of venture development says Connecticut has all the right ingredients for success in commercializing university research.

Mostafa Analoui, executive director of venture development., right, speaks with Ying Liu of ReinEsse LLC at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington on Feb. 8, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

UConn's new director of venture development, Mostafa Analoui, right, speaks with Ying Liu of ReinEsse LLC at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington. Analoui says Connecticut has all the right ingredients for success in commercializing university research. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Mostafa Analoui joined UConn as executive director of venture development last October after an extensive national search, and now also serves as head of the UConn Technology Incubation Program. He has previously worked in academia, the corporate world, and investment banking, as well as launching a startup that is still in business today.

Mostafa Analoui, executive director of venture development, speaks with Kashmira Kulkarmi, chief scientist, and Alex Tikhonov, senior scientist at Azitra's technology incubator lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington on Feb. 8, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Mostafa Analoui, executive director of venture development, center, speaks with Kashmira Kulkarmi, chief scientist, left, and Alex Tikhonov, senior scientist at Azitra’s technology incubator lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

He has been tasked with leading UConn’s efforts to identify disruptive technologies that are ripe for venture development, recruit entrepreneurs and talent to lead these startups, and raise early-stage and follow-on funding to grow these companies.

“We are thrilled that a seasoned entrepreneur and business leader like Mostafa Analoui is at the helm of UConn’s growing venture development efforts, including the Technology Incubation Program,” says Jeff Seemann, vice president for research at UConn/UConn Health. “UConn’s research and innovation pipeline is a critically important part of economic development in the state. It helps drive Connecticut’s innovation economy by commercializing life-saving technologies, supporting new companies, and creating high-wage jobs.”

Analoui has already begun working closely with faculty in Storrs and at UConn Health in Farmington. He recently discussed the special challenges and benefits of trying to develop new ventures in a university setting, and what it means for UConn and the state of Connecticut.

Q: Why is it important for universities to play a role in venture development?

A: Academic research is a powerful engine that generates innovative ideas for products and services with commercial potential. There are currently close to 10,000 patented products being sold based on technologies that originated in academic research labs. This potential offers a source of capital that can allow researchers to extend their work beyond basic research, and see their discoveries transformed into tangible products and solutions that could benefit society. Converting these ideas into solutions supports the University’s mission to enhance the social, economic, cultural, and natural environments of the state and beyond. It is also a reason that the state continues to provide support for growth programs like UConn 2000, Bioscience Connecticut, and Next Generation Connecticut.

The innovative research being conducted at academic institutions like UConn and UConn Health is also an important economic driver for the state and the nation. In the past 20 years or so, universities have launched approximately 11,000 companies that created 3.8 million jobs. The majority of these companies remain in the state where the original research was conducted and make important contributions to that state’s economy. To convert these ideas into products and companies, academic researchers need support from experts and access to resources that are common in the venture world, but are not traditionally available in a university environment. With my experience in academia, corporate settings, the startup world, and investment banking, I know I can help bridge that gap.

Q: What is different about venture development in a university setting? What are the biggest challenges?

A: What makes venture development at a university unique may also be its greatest challenge. By definition, research institutions are places where discovery and innovation happen daily. There is a constant flux of fresh ideas from great minds. This provides a unique environment where some of the greatest challenges facing our society are being tackled. The biggest challenge within a university setting is converting these ideas and discoveries into tangible solutions that can be used to address societal needs. The overall expectation for faculty is to educate, explore new ideas, and to further knowledge, but not generally to execute this conversion process. Federal research funding is increasingly competitive and typically does not support commercialization, but working to translate such research does present alternative funding options and offers the added, special reward of seeing a discovery applied to solve a real-life problem. That is another reason why support services like those provided through Technology Commercialization Services within the Office of the Vice President for Research are so critical to help advance research discoveries made at UConn to the marketplace.

Q: You have a background as an academic researcher in engineering. How did you end up in venture development?

A: Along with my teaching responsibilities, when I was a young assistant professor I was leading a major research program in oral and maxillofacial radiology. This work was successful using the standard measures of academic achievement: grants, publications, and training graduate students. But I was always intrigued to see that some of these scientific discoveries had transformative applications in the real world. It was also empowering to know that if our research demanded certain tools and devices that did not exist, we had the ability to try and develop them ourselves.

I gradually began to do more hands-on work, implementing some of the research ideas, collaborating with companies that were active in my areas, and learning about the business aspects of transforming scientific discoveries into commercial products. Soon a patent was issued for our work (“stereotactic radiography”), but because there were no university-based support services at that time, I had to form a startup on my own to commercialize the technology. Focused on product development and clinical services, this company is still in business today.

Although I received academic promotions and was awarded tenure, my work took me out of academia into the corporate world. This allowed me to increase my focus on innovation and product development with more robust resources. After going through some key corporate roles and transactions, I eventually found myself in the world of investment banking, primarily focused on company formation and funding. I’ve really enjoyed being engaged in multiple innovative companies, and am happy to continue this work at a top university like UConn.

Q: What is UConn’s reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship?

A: UConn has made positive gains in this arena, especially in regard to the growing Technology Incubation Program (TIP), which currently supports 35 startups in various fields. Since its inception in 2003, TIP has supported over 85 companies that have raised more than $50 million in grant funding, $80 million in debt and equity, more than $45 million in revenue, and have created over 100 full- and part-time jobs in the past year alone. With unprecedented investments from the state in initiatives like Next Generation Connecticut and Bioscience Connecticut, the momentum is building. We need to continue to support and grow the programs that currently exist at UConn and UConn Health to establish the University as a leader in research, education, service, and also commercialization.

Q: How does TIP fit in?

A:  TIP is an established program in Connecticut that is known to improve the likelihood of startup success. The program provides a supportive environment with comprehensive startup services for UConn and UConn-related entrepreneurs that need access to state-of-the-art lab space and business resources to transition early-stage R&D projects into prototypes, products, and services. With the right support, these projects can grow and become a stand-alone company, or they can be very successful as technologies licensed to established corporations.

The access to state-of-the-art facilities and research infrastructure that TIP provides to member companies is unrivaled in Connecticut. The cutting-edge equipment and access to expensive scientific instrumentation is critical for our startups, who are working in a variety of highly specialized fields. The fact that our two major facilities are located on UConn campuses means that TIP companies can easily collaborate with the world-class researchers in Storrs or at UConn Health in Farmington, which keeps progress moving.

TIP provides valuable business support services at little or no cost to member companies. TIP startups have access to entrepreneurs-in-residence with proven track records who play a hands-on role to assure their scientific and financial goals are met. TIP also provides access to legal and financial resources for member startups, and often hosts internal educational events for startup CEOs and their employees. One of TIP’s most attractive benefits to startups is the visibility companies get in the investment community and among corporate players.

Q: What is the interest level from outside investors in university-based technologies? What can UConn do to increase this interest?

A: One of the key challenges for UConn and all Connecticut spinoff companies is limited sources of local investment capital. The quality of the research and technologies is not the problem. While Connecticut Innovations and a few local venture capital firms are actively engaged in reviewing and supporting UConn entrepreneurs, a larger and broader set of investment pools to address this critical need would help a larger number of promising technologies to reach the market. Currently, we are in the process of reviewing and interviewing an expanded group of regional investors in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts to engage them in TIP and other new ventures at UConn.

Q: What role does UConn Health play in UConn’s ability to commercialize technologies, support existing industry, and create new companies?

A: UConn is in a very special position, given its basic and applied research capabilities in Storrs and at the Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine at UConn Health. UConn Health covers a broad range of clinical and research areas across multiple disciplines. The recent investments from the state through Bioscience Connecticut have also significantly expanded its depth and reach, which has led to many unique opportunities for venture development. In fact, a large portion of our current TIP companies have health care or biotech focuses. These companies rely on direct and indirect involvement from UConn Health, as well as other collaborations with UConn faculty in Storrs. Based on my initial observations and conversations with academic and research leaders, I anticipate a significant increase in the quality and quantity of UConn Health-related ventures.

Q: Most recently, you were based in New York City, but you chose to take a job in Connecticut. What is your perception of the current climate for innovation in the state? What is the impact of initiatives like Bioscience Connecticut, and JAX Genomic Medicine locating at UConn Health?

A: In my opinion, the state is primed for big growth in this field. Top research institutions like UConn and Yale are engaged in many innovative research areas, with extremely high commercial value and potential returns. Combine that with the significant long-term investment made by the State of Connecticut to create and support an environment that is conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship, and the potential is there. Then consider the fact that JAX Genomic Medicine and a number of diverse biomedical, technology, industrial, and service corporations are also in Connecticut, and you have all the right ingredients for success. Achieving such success requires a targeted effort in the areas that can differentiate Connecticut in the competitive regional and national race, such as technologies that rely on microbiome research, for instance.

Q: What is your advice to faculty, students, postdocs, etc. who are interested in commercialization or forming new startups? What can they do to increase their chances of success?

A: I would recommend they seek the help of experts who can support them in this endeavor, because it requires a completely different skill set than those necessary to be a successful researcher or educator. I am always available, as are my colleagues in Technology Commercialization Services, to assist entrepreneurial faculty with their questions about the commercialization process and the market potential of their technologies. I would also encourage them to take advantage of the existing programs and resources offered at the University, which are intended to provide educational and follow-on support for students and faculty considering commercializing their innovations.

Venture development is a high-risk endeavor, with a rocky road full of surprises. It requires vision, tenacity, and the ability to work with a large and diverse network of experts with diverse personalities. While the journey starts with a great idea and recognition of societal needs, you also need to hit the road pitching the idea, as well as listening to and implementing feedback. In the end, it takes a team to convert novel ideas into tangible products, so get out there, shake hands, and network.

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