While UConn’s TIP Digital in Stamford supports its start-ups in myriad ways – providing them office space, access to research, opportunities to collaborate with UConn staff and each other, and training in critical skills like customer discovery, product development, marketing and fundraising – its “secret sauce” is its entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIR), industry experts who serve the startups as mentors.
“The number one value the incubator provides my company is its mentorship and advisors,” said Christopher Ricciuti, CEO of TIP Digital startup Noteworthy AI. “They’ve been helping us navigate items related to scaling our company, getting in front of customers, and fundraising.” (Through artificial intelligence, Noteworthy is helping electric utilities increase grid reliability, resiliency and safety.)
Wendy Ward, founder and CEO of FuturesTHRIVE, a TIP Digital startup that’s creating a mental health screening tool for youth, added: “TIP paired me with a mentor who has significant experience in the world of assessment and mental health technology. We meet every two weeks and he’s been wonderful. Everything that he has challenged me with doing has been important to our overall business. He has also made a number of key introductions for us — and from an entrepreneur’s perspective, introductions are everything.”
TIP Digital opened in February 2021 and supports data science startups. It is the latest addition to UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services (TCS) program that manages incubators in Storrs and Farmington that mainly focus on life sciences. Nine EIRs serve TIP Digital’s 20 startups: Kevin Gardiner, Richard Guha, Howard Krain, Travis Millman, Roger Neal, Aleks Tropp, Tom Gerson, Eric Knight and Nicole Ward. An additional 14 EIRs from TCS assist them as well. All UConn EIRs are born out of the need for support of UConn startups and companies incubated in TIP. In addition to supporting UConn innovators and entrepreneurs, the EIRs contribute to various programs and initiatives across UConn.
Travis Millman, one of TIP Digital’s first EIRs (and FuturesTHRIVE’s mentor), is a serial entrepreneur with experience across multiple industries – from consumer-facing digital media (he was the founding VP of business development at Audible.com, now part of Amazon) to ed tech (he launched or worked on several ventures in the literacy and language learning spaces) to healthcare (he led new business and innovation for Pearson’s renowned Clinical Assessment business and helped architect a new venture for Philips Healthcare). Currently, Millman serves as COO for Neuvotion Inc., an early-stage medical device company developing products for the rehabilitation and physical therapy markets. He attributes the popularity of UConn’s EIR program to two key factors, customization and fluidity, and its aim to help the startups become “as successful as they can possibly be.”
When startups join TIP Digital, they vary considerably in terms of growth stage and industry focus. “We have to be attentive to their specific needs, challenges and opportunities,” Millman said. With respect to growth, some startups are just beyond the “idea stage” while others are more advanced with products in development and initial customer bases established. As for industry differences, he said health tech companies, for example, often have a stronger desire to interface and collaborate with UConn experts compared with fin tech startups.
As the EIRs possess varying skill sets and experience as well, they are assigned to the startups in a customized manner to best meet each company’s needs. The startups are each matched with a “lead EIR” who meets with them regularly and, as needed, connects them to the other EIRs and to additional resources inside and outside of UConn such as experts in strategy, finance, product development, regulatory, marketing and sales, etc.
“A hallmark of our program is that we’re fairly decentralized,” Millman said. “There’s no mandatory structure or approach to how each EIR works with the companies. Some EIRs adopt a responsive posture as in, ‘I’m here when you need me, just reach out any time,’ which is very helpful – and generous – to be available on demand. My most productive coaching has been when I push the startups to meet with me regularly, and hold them accountable for working on the issues we’ve discussed. Both approaches are effective.”
Millman says the EIRs assist an average of six startups each and spend up to eight hours per week doing so. In addition, they present educational seminars to the startups and meet regularly with each other to share ideas and resources.
The EIR Role
While it’s tempting to roll up his sleeves and work hands-on with the companies, Millman says he holds himself back and remembers the role of a coach and mentor. “It is not serving as a core team member and doing the day-to-day heavy lifting,” he said. “It’s about helping them discover their own answers.”
He cites three core modalities of EIR support:
- Business development. “Many of the folks we help are incredibly talented scientists and physicians, some of whom have never approached a business plan nor endeavored to build a company. So that’s where we come in. We help them dig into all of the assumptions about their products and companies, define clear objectives and determine key performance indicators (KPIs) that we can use to measure their progress.”
- Introductions and connections. Startups need capital, and to raise capital they need connections. The EIRs share their professional networks to help open new doors.
- Straightforward coaching. “We provide a steady presence for companies to work with and be held accountable. In some ways we try to act like servant board members who want to understand the company’s trajectory and help facilitate their success.”
With respect to the startups’ founders and CEOs, Millman added: “I have so much empathy for them because they’re constantly confronting tons of different opportunities for spending their time and determining their priorities. It’s a lonely role to make so many decisions, especially when they receive conflicting advice from trusted sources. In those instances, we try to be helpful and supportive. It’s one of those interesting lines to cross very carefully: When to be prescriptive about something and when to be more Socratic and help them find their own way.”
A Risky Business
“Startup life is risky,” Millman said. “I try to impart that to the teams I mentor. They have to play the game knowing that many startups, if not most, don’t make it. They need to take that seriously. The infrastructure at TIP Digital, however, is excellent for providing support, ‘de-risking,’ and increasing the odds of success. There’s never been a better time to start new companies and do new things. Lots of capital is available and the days of structural rigidities, even around accessing capital, are almost gone. Things are much better than in the old days.”
“I get such pleasure from coaching and mentoring,” Millman said. “I’ve seen a lot, I’ve lived through a lot, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. When I can help the companies I work with avoid some of those pitfalls and find faster paths to success, I feel gratified.”