The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private institution devoted to cultivating ideas and leadership among entrepreneurs, opened its doors last week to the inaugural class of its Entrepreneurial Postdoctoral Fellows program, spearheading the foundation's new focus to study the science of start-ups.
"What we want to do is give them exposure to how companies make decisions, specifically to evaluating technologies," says Sandy Miller, director of Advancing Innovation at the foundation, of the 13 fellows. Each of the postdoctoral researchers, whose expertise range from marine science to biochemistry, received grants to continue their studies and work toward commercializing their proposals into actual start-ups. At the end of the yearlong program, the fellows will present their plans to the foundation's advisory panel of experts, which will guide the hopeful entrepreneurs on the next course of action.
Last week saw the first in a series of workshops, titled, "From Postdoc to Start-up," in which the fellows participated in seminars centered around such themes as self-assessment and building skill sets in a business team. The workshops will be held once every three months, while the fellows participate in internships and work with mentors on developing their business models. Miller says another integral part of the fellowship will be connecting the entrepreneurs with investors in the foundation's network, who could not only help fund the projects, but also nurture the fellows.
"Some [venture capital] investors are in it to make the next deal," says Miller. "But these investors are of a caliber where they are better skilled, and enjoy teaching and helping a first time founder. They can put on that educational hat."
Tim Marzullo, who received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Michigan in 2008, hopes to bring an in-depth understanding of the brain to secondary schools and early undergraduate markets with a device that can display and record the neuron activity of insects, which he created with a classmate, Greg Gage. Marzullo says his grant, which pays the salary of a postdoctoral degree and includes health benefits, provides an escape from the research lab and enables him to spend at least 20-hours per week commercializing his idea.
"It's very exciting to be working on this, rather than languishing away in a lab," he says. "I really feel like I'm using all the skills of grad school, plus the research I've done. It's the perfect alignment."
Marzullo says by the end of the program, he wants to have his first product available for educators, which will bring him closer to his ultimate goal of making his graduate degree "obsolete" in the future.
"I want to be able to stop somebody on the street when I'm 50, tell them I'm a neuroscientist, and they're not even impressed," he says, "because they've already done it [in high school]."