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innovation gateway partnership will accelerate startup creation

Brian Cummings, Executive Director of OSUís Technology and Commercialization Office.
Brian Cummings, Executive Director of OSUís Technology and Commercialization Office. - Photos Ben French
Unlike most undergraduates at Ohio State University, Zack Hall is up and at ‘em well before eight a.m. He's standing before a crowd of 100-plus entrepreneurs, techies and venture capitalists to pitch his startup company and ask for ideas, mentors and money.

Hall is founder of CollegeCratez.com, an e-commerce website that customizes care packages – everything from ramen noodles to pop tarts and orange juice – with a few clicks of the mouse. Busy moms and dads can now pay someone else to ship a package of junk food to their kids at exam time.

Hall came up with the idea after seeing the vast mounds of care packages arrive in OSU mailrooms all year and thinking to himself: There’s a business here. He’d never started a company before, yet that hardly deterred him. After designing a website, he began making trips to Sam’s Club to fill orders as they trickled in.   

“We launched our site a year ago with no money, did a lot of search engine optimization and we’re doing pretty well,” Hall tells the crowd at Wake Up Start Up, a monthly startup pitch session that is hosted by OSU’s Technology and Commercialization Office (TCO) on second Fridays from 7:30-9:00 a.m.

The audience loves Hall’s simple ask – he wants $5,000 for a direct mail and marketing campaign. One panelist pulls out his wallet and fishes for a twenty dollar bill. An audience member suggests that he think bigger and reach out to Amazon. After the talk, Hall is beset by fellow entrepreneurs who want to help.

The pitches are as diverse as the crowd. Another presenter, Jim Durand of OSU’s industry-leading Center for Automotive Research, is seeking $5 million to develop affordable natural gas refueling stations in private homes for natural gas vehicles. Called SimpleFill, the technology could forever change the CNG vehicle market.

The day is just beginning. Yet here at Wake Up Start Up, held at the TCO's offices in South Campus Gateway on the eastern edge of campus, the ideas are already flowing.

Whether they're asking for $5,000 or $5 million, entrepreneurs like Hall, Durand and others are part of OSU’s increased emphasis on developing startups. Thanks to the efforts of Executive Director Brian Cummings, who took the helm a year ago, the TCO is now spinning out companies faster than it ever has before.

“We’ve gutted the process and started over,” says Cummings, who previously headed up a similar office in Salt Lake City. After arriving in Columbus, he led efforts to move the TCO into a sleek, modern storefront on High Street which previously housed a grocery store to increase its presence in the community.

“Commercialization is not done well at most universities – the ideas are so complex and early stage that 70 percent can’t break even,” Cummings explains. The TCO’s role is to license, fund and commercialize business-worthy ideas created on campus. “OSU is investing more and changing more radically than it ever has before. What we do is look at startup companies, assess them, protect them and then help them find the capital and talent that allows them to grow.”

“Zack Hall is forgoing beer money to build that business. That’s the spark we love,” adds Dan Rockwell, Program Manager of Software Prototyping for the TCO. “We need the guy who’s doing incredible cancer research and the students."

OSU’s tech commercialization efforts will soon be aided by a new partnership with TechColumbus, the entrepreneurial support organization for Central Ohio. Innovation Gateway, which was recently awarded $2.6 million from Ohio Third Frontier, will help to identify, nurture and grow companies more quickly.

“OSU has an increased emphasis on spinning out companies based on university research, and we have early-stage funding once they get to that level,” explains Tom Walker, the newly hired President and CEO of TechColumbus, who previously led a similar economic development group in Oklahoma.

At its headquarters on Kinnear Road just west of the OSU campus, TechColumbus offers startup funding, a suite of services that include mentorship from high-level entrepreneurs, and neo-industrial office space that is filled with other startups.

The group reports a 30-40 percent increase in company creation from 2011 to 2012 so far. Many of the companies it works with have ties to OSU research. Innovation Gateway emerged earlier this year as the natural outcome of a collaboration that started years ago between the two innovation groups.

“Universities focus much more on the transfer of technologies and don’t or can’t spend a lot of time in actively developing new businesses or partnerships,” says Cummings. “The Gateway [will] leverage the experience and resources at TCO with those of TechColumbus to increase the efficiency of starting new companies.”

For large research universities like Ohio State, the commercialization process that Cummings has begun to build is a sea change from how they’ve operated in the past. It requires every college and department across the university to think differently about how they conduct research and bring results to market.

“You get an inventor who’s never had anyone help them with development and they get excited,” explains Paul Render, who heads up the TCO’s Ideation Lab and has three decades of experience with startup companies. “You’re not just helping them with the product, you’re also teaching them about commercialization.”

“The big societal problems are all multidisciplinary,” adds Cory Morgan, an OSU grad student who helps analyze startups for the TCO. That's why university research is so important, he says. “At Ohio State, we have an army of people working together to do something. You can’t get that outside of universities.”

One example of an OSU-derived invention that the TCO is working on now is the so-called "blood cozy." Millions of dollars in life-saving blood is thrown away each year because it gets too warm in the transition from blood bank to hospital. The blood insulator will protect the blood and keep it from spoiling during that time.

“We’ve tripled the number of inventions that have come out of the medical school in the past year,” says Cummings, sitting in his office overlooking the hustle and bustle on High Street, a visual reminder of the energy and vitality of human capital that exists at OSU. “We've created the space to make connections.”

The aim of the TCO is to earn a revenue stream for the university by licensing or taking an equity stake in startups, depending on the stage of the company. If these companies are successful, they will attract venture capital, create jobs and generate income tax revenues throughout the Central Ohio region.

"Now we can get West Coast venture capital here," says Cummings, citing an uptick in investment throughout the region. "They’ll come because it’s OSU.”

The South Campus Gateway TCO office features high ceilings, exposed ductwork, large windows overlooking the street and an open floor plan. The interior has flexible meeting areas, a kitchen, idea boards and a ping pong table.

“Brian loves pie, so when he first started we did a ‘Patents and Pies’ forum,” says Rockwell. “Now [OSU President] Gordon Gee uses the TCO for his press events.”

The TCO's purpose in many ways comes back to students like Zack Hall. They are not only the lifeblood of the university, but also a source of great startup ideas.

“Think about companies like Apple and Google – they were all started by 21-year-olds,” argues Morgan. “There are 60,000 students at OSU, and so many ideas floating around here. Now there’s a team of 40 people to develop them.”

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