The TechMatch program at New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center offers a research-only license as an incentive to get would-be entrepreneurs interested in one of several hundred technologies just waiting for someone to turn them into start-ups. It’s a key element of the program — essentially a self-serve menu of innovations backed by a web of interlocking support services designed to push products to market — but it’s just one arrow in the quiver.
“We developed two new programs, FundMatch and TechMatch, to help entrepreneurs who are interested in creating a business but don’t know what type they want to develop,” says Theresa “Terry” Lombard, MBA, director of the Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer at Arrowhead Center. FundMatch “offers funding capabilities to eligible individuals who already know they’re going to take a technology and turn it into a business,” she says. “TechMatch gives them the ability to match their interests to the technologies that are available.”
The research-only license “allows them to securely and comfortably explore the technology further without the commitment of an option or a license agreement.” The best next step, she explains, may be additional development in an I-Corps prep program or taking part in a proof-of-concept accelerator program.
How research-only deals work
“You’re allowed to do research only” with the limited license, Lombard emphasizes, “not product development or creation of derivative works. It’s just for exploration of the technology.” There is, of course, “some confidentiality involved as well,” she adds. And while each research-only agreement is “not quite custom each time,” it is, she notes, “particular to each technology.” Otherwise, she says, “the biggest way it’s different is there’s no cost involved, and with options and license agreements, there is.”
The information an entrepreneur gathers about a technology under a research-only license may, of course, result in a “no-go” decision, she emphasizes, but even that is an overall positive for the technology because the experience can provide useful information to the inventors about what the market would rather have. “The information can help accelerate the technology,” she says.
Relationship management is a key part of the program, Lombard adds. In about 30% of research-only licenses, inventors and entrepreneurs do come together to form a start-up. TechMatch not only assists in bringing the two together, but also offers help in deciding on which field of use makes the most sense based on market needs. “Like all license agreements, we have provisions to make sure technologies don’t sit on shelves,” she says, “and to make sure the start-up isn’t hurt up front.”
Research-only license buys time
TechMatch — funded by a U.S. Economic Development Administration i6 Regional Innovation Strategies program grant — and all its affiliated Arrowhead Center programs don’t operate in siloes, Lombard emphasizes. Rather, each feeds into and compliments the others. The IP Office’s “Technologies Available for Licensing” web page lists about 500 innovations in agriculture, biotechnology, medical devices, information technology, engineering, energy and water technology, she says, and it’s now collaborating with the NMSU Learning Games Lab and Creative Media Institute to add creative works to the offerings.
Entrepreneurs, she emphasizes, “can explore any NMSU technology for research-only purposes, then if they decide to move forward at any time, we’ll work with them.” Some of the technologies come from IP generated by partner institutions, including the Univeristy of New Mexico, New Mexico Tech and the Sandia, Los Alamos and Air Force Research Labs. Those organizations make up Innovate New Mexico, a statewide network that seeks to serve as a “united entrance” to New Mexico’s entire innovation ecosystem.
The exploration starts with “engaging in conversations about the research-only license,” Lombard says. Her office maintains the available technologies list; items have been vetted for patent eligibility and market viability. The other Innovate New Mexico institutions “go through similar processes to list and advertise their technologies,” she notes.
“TechMatch is a great way for people to explore technology in a limited-risk environment without fear,” she says. “But the key is you must have fertile ground to help them grow something wonderful.”
Web of support options is essential
Indeed, TechMatch participants who use a research-only license “are most successful when they engage in one of those programs,” Lombard adds. As an incentive, the Arrowhead Center operates the Catalyst Fund and the Arrowhead Innovation Fund, and “if you’ve been through one of our programs, you’re eligible.” The key elements of its commercialization environment include these:
- Aggie I-Corps supports start-up teams in go/no go decisioning mode and preps them for the national version. Participants get coaching and $2,000; they must conduct 30 interviews with potential customers.
- The annual LAUNCH competition is a four-month proof-of-concept/technology commercialization accelerator program; entrepreneurs are judged on commercial viability and progress made, and the top prize is up to $25,000 in equity investment. Lombard’s office developed a Lean Launch canvas for the event.
- The Arrowhead Center just started three types of “StartupSprints” for participants on or off-campus. AgSprint is a five-month program “very similar to I-Corps,” Lombard comments, including the activities and the financial support. “Taking it gives you eligibility to participate in a national I-Corps program, which has a $50,000 award,” she adds. BizSprint focuses on export-based businesses; it’s a four-week program that can provide access to mentorship through Arrowhead Innovation Network Ventures. TechSprint tests the feasibility of technology start-ups.
- Studio G is NMSU’s student business entrepreneurship program. Participants have access to an online curriculum, workspaces and guidance from the Arrowhead Innovation Network, a team of technical advisors, and a variety of funding opportunities.
- NM FAST — that’s for “Federal and State Technology” — offers advocates and services to help small businesses navigate the SBIR and STTR programs and their proposal processes, as well as micro-grants of $650 for professional services, such as help with commercialization plan development or technology licensing.
Studio G students and grads “are a natural fit” for the TechMatch program, for example, she explains. One of them could opt for a research-only license and use the commitment-free period to take part in one of Arrowhead Center’s StartupSprints, the university’s LAUNCH program, or the Aggie I-Corp program to develop the technology further. “At the end, you have to make a go/no go decision about a business,” Lombard notes. “You could then engage in an option agreement to do more exploring before setting up an entity. Then you might be eligible for funding under the federal Small Business Innovation Research program or the Small Business Technology Transfer program,” which in turn could lead to an NMFAST microgrant, she explains.
In addition, Lombard points to the Arrowhead Technology Incubator, which offers mentoring and assistance with capital sourcing and customer acquisition, and Arrowhead Park, a public-private master planned community, as additional pieces in the commercialization ecosystem – as is Activando Emprendedores, a hands-on approach to entrepreneurship that’s conducted in Spanish.
“You have to have the ancillary programs,” she emphasizes — perhaps the financial programs most of all. “That’s the key,” she says. “I truly believe that you’ve got to have ways to help entrepreneurs move forward if they don’t have the resources. You’ve got to have that resource capability.”
Contact Lombard at 575-646-2791 or firstname.lastname@example.org.