Case giving entrepreneurs a hand, with help from MIT
For entrepreneurs with promising ideas and technologies, Mark Chance wants to offer them support early in their journey toward the potential commercialization of their discoveries.
Really early. As in, pre-clinical trials, pre-company early.
And so Chance, vice dean for research at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, launched a program in March to mentor young entrepreneurs. The first two mentees in the Case Venture Mentoring Program both have day jobs, he said, and are looking to branch out and start a company around their technologies. One is to repair spinal cord injuries; the other is an artificial platelet that could save people who have gunshot wounds.
"I'm trying to play very early at that vulnerable stage where I have good technologies in the university; we've got somebody in the lab who's feeling entrepreneurial," Chance said. "How do I get them support? I think this program could help me with that."
It's based off a successful model at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dubbed the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, which has mentored more than 2,500 participants since it was founded in 2000. Chance and his colleagues completed training at MIT to adopt the model.
Northeast Ohio has other entities supporting biotech companies, such as venture development organization JumpStart Inc. and BioEnterprise, a local nonprofit tasked with helping health care startups.
Chance said he wants to address a different piece of that ecosystem, and potentially hand off companies to the other organizations along the pipeline. The support comes completely free to students with no timeline, and the mentors all are volunteers.
Finding the mentors so far has been pretty easy, he said. Indeed, he has some on deck as he works to gradually ramp up the number of entrepreneurs. He plans to add a couple new mentees each quarter so the program is supporting eight to 10 ventures a year from now.
The program is set up with team mentoring, so an entrepreneur will meet with multiple mentors at once, rather than getting differing opinions and advice from each. And mentors are not allowed to invest in the entrepreneur's technologies and ideas in order to create a "completely safe space" for the mentees to speak their minds and address concerns or roadblocks, Chance said.
In early March, the first round of mentors went through training and then began working with the two pilot mentees.
Leslie Dickson was eager to join. The biologist by training is now president and CEO of VoicePRO, which helps business people to communicate more effectively. The mentoring program is an ideal combination of those skills. She worked in a biotech startup before beginning her work at VoicePRO more than two decades ago.
Mentoring these "young brilliant people" is a way for her to bring some of her science background back to the forefront, Dickson said. She said she hopes to offer perspective and ensure that the entrepreneurs are able to transfer their academic skills into a business.
"The processes are different; the pace can be different; the contacts could be different," she said. "So whatever I can do to help bridge that transition for them is what I'm hoping to offer up."
Ira Kaplan, executive chairman of Benesch law firm, has gotten to know Case through doing intellectual property and other work through CWRU's Technology Transfer Office. That familiarity, plus a deep interest in technology and a background in business, made it "pretty easy to say yes" when approached with the opportunity to mentor, Kaplan said.
He said he brings experience in the community, understanding of the capital markets and a career of creating a financeable vehicle for a concept.
"If you've been around a while, you've seen a lot of things. You've seen a lot of ways that people have succeeded, and you've seen a lot of things that can inhibit success if they're done the wrong way," Kaplan said. "I have enough history and background to bring some perspective that comes with time in the marketplace, I hope."
As the program begins, Chance said he's keeping a close eye on growth and the costs to administer the program. For now, the primary metrics will be whether the mentors and mentees are happy, which he said is the approach that MIT suggests.
"If I have happy entrepreneurs and happy mentors, I think I can make this program go," Chance said.
Down the line, he hopes for the kind of success that MIT has seen. Ventures with the MIT service have raised more than $1.44 billion in investments and grants. And the free service has assisted more than 1,450 ventures.
Mentor Jim Herget, independent executive search consultant, said the program will help people get a good start, which is crucial.
"Usually this person starting up might be an expert in their area of science, but if you know engineers and scientists and so forth, they're not generally that well-versed in accounting — that's not their world — or law," said Herget, who is the husband of CWRU School of Medicine dean Dr. Pamela Davis. "But when you start these little companies, you've gotta have a good accountant and a good lawyer."
Chance hopes to keep these talented, driven people in Cleveland as they fulfill their dreams. They're passionate and eager for advice and opportunities to do something with their technology, he said.
"I feel like part of what I've been doing for the last 30-some years is to try, in my own small way, to create a community where it is more attractive for young professionals to look at Cleveland, and ones who know it to stick around," said Kaplan, a native Clevelander. "I think we've made a lot of progress, and this is piece of that fabric."
"Case giving entrepreneurs a hand, with help from MIT" originally appeared in Crain's Cleveland Business.
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