Mentorship Program Connects UConn Startups with Industry, Business, Investment Experts

A unique mentorship program pairs UConn researchers with industry experts to transform ideas into successful startups.

Two females and one male work collaboratively in front of a white board

The EIR Mentorship program connects UConn researchers with experienced entrepreneurs and industry experts (Photo taken pre-COVID by Nathan Oldham/UConn Photo)

Researchers at the University of Connecticut are making groundbreaking discoveries all the time. But for this work to be translated into a product or service that can help people, it takes a lot of hard work and, critically, business savvy that many academic researchers lack. That’s where EIRs come in.

The Entrepreneurs/Executives in Residence (EIRs) in the Technology Commercialization Services (TCS) Mentorship Program bring their diverse business backgrounds to UConn to help researchers validate and commercialize their findings and bring their work to the broader community.

EIRs are established industry, business, and investment experts who are looking for something new, whether that’s a change of pace from the corporate world or the next big thing in cutting-edge technology. Whether executive or entrepreneur, they all want to give back to the community that helped them on their journey.

These experts provide invaluable advice to researchers looking to commercialize their innovations.

“EIRs help universities create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is tied to innovation and, more broadly, to economic development,” Abhijit (Jit) Banerjee, UConn’s associate vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship, says.

Creating a startup takes a tremendous amount of work and dedication. Researchers often come into the process without any sense of where to start, since they are trained in science not startups.

EIRs help universities create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is tied to innovation and, more broadly, to economic development — Jit Banerjee

TCS carefully pairs startups in the Technology Incubation Program (TIP) with EIRs who have the relevant experience to address a company’s specific challenges. There are currently more than 50 startups in TIP with dozens more UConn startups in the pipeline. TIP also recently announced its newest location in Stamford, focusing on data science startups.

“We spend a lot of time to identify and recruit top-notch players with the deep technical, business, and investment expertise, along with the ability to work with a diverse population,” Mostafa Analoui, executive director for venture development at UConn, says.

Sometimes these partnerships can go beyond an advisory role, as was the case for Vijay Jayachandran. Jayachandran became an EIR at UConn in February 2020 after leaving United Technologies where he had spent over two decades working in various areas, including corporate research, product development, operations, marketing, and strategy.

“I see myself as someone who likes to sit at the intersection of technology and business to bring tangible impacts to humanity,” Jayachandran says. “The EIR position sounded ideal because it allowed someone like me with a lot of background in business to work with scientists who have brilliant ideas, but lack the knowledge of how to bring them to market.”

As Jayachandran began working with the TIP startups, he was particularly drawn to ACW Analytics, founded by Emmanouil Anagnostou, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Eversource Energy Center at UConn Tech Park.

ACW Analytics uses artificial intelligence to create models that predict storm damage from severe weather events. These models help electrical utility companies make rapid decisions during and after storms based on detailed real-time assessments of what is happening on the ground.

Jayachandran joined the ACW Analytics team as an advisor and now serves as its CEO. “I’m very excited about what the technology offers,” Jayachandran says. “I feel there will be plenty of opportunities to apply the same machine learning techniques to many other problems.”

Jayachandran saw the potential of ACW Analytics’ technology quite early and pushed them to move faster toward commercialization. After developing a proof-of-concept last summer, the company is now reaching out to potential customers.

“We were just in the shadows trying to get our foot in the door with one utility and that was it,” Anagnostou says. “I don’t think we would have been able to push forward without someone with experience in the market.”

Jayachandran sees his role as an EIR is someone who asks questions the founders may not have thought about. Asking these questions can help the founders see potential problems or opportunities an EIR can then help address.

“Ultimately the founders still make the final decisions, but we try to give them as much information as possible,” Jayachandran says.

This perspective is key for a company’s success. While an innovation may be scientifically exciting, it does not automatically translate into a commercially successful product. Consulting an EIR early in the development process can give researchers a tremendous head start. EIRs can also serve as mentors to graduate students interested in entrepreneurship who are working with faculty inventors.

Given the success of the program and the growing demand for its services, TCS is looking to bring more and more diverse voices, in terms of demographics and specialties, into the program.

“Every time we have a new mentor added to the program, we get a new set of ideas and a fresh set of eyes coming on board,” Analoui says.

This program helps support the economic development of Connecticut as these companies create jobs and stimulate economic activity in the state.

“The expansion has already begun with the recent opening of UConn’s incubator in Stamford,” Banerjee says. “We’re excited to see what the future holds for UConn’s researchers, the startups founded on their discoveries, and new job creation taking place in the state.”

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