A small-but-growing number of corporate researchers eager for access to ideas and products coming out of universities are investing at an earlier stage than before, a Twin Cities consultant says.
The effort, known as proof-of-concept funding, provides funds for scholarly research when initial grants run out. It creates more risks for corporate investors but also greater rewards by positioning them with a stake in a startup firm before other early-stage investors.
“Corporations are identifying the proof-of-concept stage as a cheaper way to see something sooner,” said Jacob Johnson, founder of Innovosource, a Minnetonka-based consulting firm that connects companies and university researchers. “The alternative is to wait for more risk to be taken out and then to pay a premium.”
Johnson’s firm, along with the Barnes & Thornburg law firm in Minneapolis, are hosting a conference on July 11 for leaders of university investment funds to meet with Twin Cities businesses to discuss the financing of work by students and professors.
The conference is designed for university leaders to explain how companies can help them bridge the gap between the time when students and professors start exploring ideas and the arrival of angel investors, usually wealthy individuals, which marks the traditional start in the business world.
During the recession a decade ago, entrepreneurial and inventive faculty and students encountered more difficulty getting from the earliest stage of research, which is usually paid for with university funds or government grants, to the time when they would attract outside investors.
As a result, universities created “gap funds,” sometimes from alumni donations or the reinvestment of royalties from previous startups, to help faculty and students pay for testing and development to get ideas through the proof-of-concept stage. “These programs have gotten more sophisticated over the last five years and fill a unique gap in the development of early-stage technology and ideas,” Johnson said.
Education and economic development agencies in some states also created funds to help university faculty and students get through the period before they attract outside investors. Minnesota does not have any such funds, though.
Many companies that have venture funds and research groups tend to wait until after a round or two of angel investing before betting their money on ideas that are emerging from universities. But Johnson noted that, by then, companies are spending $1 million or more to invest rather than the $10,000 to $50,000 that is needed at the “proof of concept” phase.
A similar conference in Chicago attracted several dozen companies that were grappling with the question of whether it makes sense to invest smaller amounts at the earlier, more risky stage of work that is emerging from universities.