A prefab approach to startups is working for the University of Utah.
Jack Brittain let a QB3 audience in on the secret of how he does more with less at Utah.
Jack Brittain gave his long-awaited Innovation Policy talk today on what he’s doing at Utah to make it #1 in the country for the number of startup companies spun off per year. (That number is not normalized by size or funding.) Brittain is vice-president for technology venture development at Utah. A lot of people showed up—175 registered, and the room was pretty full, which I was pleased with and also a bit surprised by, because I hadn’t thought so many would be interested in policy. You can always count on students to show up for a free lunch, but the crowd was a good mix of students, postdocs, profs, Garage entrepreneurs, tech transfer folks, and Mission Bay industry.
You can download Brittain’s slide deck here.
Two aspects stood out in his talk, to me. The first was his emphasis on “fail fast, fail cheap.” His examples highlighted how expensive biotech is compared with tech and engineering in general. Utah emphasizes prototyping, and the university offers grants on the order of a few thousand dollars as long as startups can provide milestones to be met within a few months. That contrasts with startups in the QB3 Garage system, which all strive to win SBIRs in the $100k-$1M range just to operate for a couple years, because you can’t count on bio experiments to work within a few months.
“You should be able to make your prototype from stuff you buy at Ace Hardware,” Brittain said—which wouldn’t have worked for Amyris, though—and he had brought an illustrative example: a pill-sized plastic device to disinfect catheters in hospitals. Apparently catheter infections are a big deal and this is an unmet medical need. Two nurses had an idea for a gizmo to coat the catheter surfaces with disinfecting alcohol (these were male nurses, who rode Harleys and ran their own machine shop; they first tried a disinfection technique that involved vigorous open flames). Their first prototype was built from two toothpaste caps. It came a long way; the sophisticated-looking samples Brittain handed out involved more than 20 patents.
The second aspect was how Utah had focused on prototyping, commercial launch, and early market expansion. Brittain’s office offers, among other things, basic incorporation, logo and website creation (some people will spend months designing a logo, when they ought to be working on their product), market research, and insurance. This last seemed key to me, and Brittain made a point of it: young companies often hire much older technical advisors, who need health insurance much more than young people do. They are not going to sign on to a startup if it means dropping health coverage that it may have taken a lot of effort to qualify for.
It occurred to me that “fail fast” doesn’t work as a motivating slogan for such people, but perhaps if they can transfer to a different startup under the same health insurance program, it’s less of a problem.
Brittain included a slide with some impressive numbers cataloguing Utah’s startup pipeline: 72 companies are at the long-term growth stage, adding more than 6,000 jobs. In a state the size of Utah (2.5 million residents) Brittain’s program, which he has developed in only five or six years, has become a major economic engine.
QB3’s next Innovation Policy event will be a lecture by Congresswoman Jackie Speier on September 27.