WRITER: Amanda Bradford
Two technology entrepreneurs were awarded substantial seed funding and other long-term support from New Mexico State University’s entrepreneurship and innovation hub, Arrowhead Center, during its annual LAUNCH competition, which wrapped up with a reception last week.
Now in its sixth year, LAUNCH is a four-month proof-of-concept program in which the commercial potential of promising technologies or products is explored early in their development by individuals or teams, with support and guidance from Arrowhead Center.
LAUNCH has been identifying and providing commercialization support to promising early-stage technologies since 2011. Under the leadership of Gina Duttle, Intellectual Property Office program manager, who took on the role of LAUNCH coordinator this year, the program expanded to include applicants from NMSU’s community college campuses and introduced a new format to expedite rapid growth in technology commercialization, featuring an online workbook, and a “Lean Launch” methodology that includes business, market and product planning throughout the customer discovery interviews. Competitors and their mentors assessed and validated the technologies, explored customer development and identified investment opportunities.
Five finalists vied for the competition’s top prize, equity investment sponsored by the Hunt Family Foundation to continue their technology acceleration. Two entrepreneurs tied for that award: Alex Gorsuch with Field MAK, a field-capable, ruggedized, modular microbiological assay kit designed to make it possible for researchers to gather and evaluate samples in the field, and Carlos Murguia with Koolkat USA, a mineral-based cool roof technology that is patented in the U.S. and Mexico and currently marketed in Mexico. Murguia is seeking to enter the U.S. market with the product. Each received a $20,000 investment.
An additional $500 prize went to Koolkat USA, which won a social media voting campaign.
“The LAUNCH competition pushed me to discover my first customer, understand them, talk to them, and start exploring options to collaborate,” Murguia said. “I will use the funds to connect Koolkat with relevant people in the industry. It’s really all about building on the passion you have.”
Gorsuch said the guidance from the LAUNCH team, including the technology commercialization associates and business mentor Griselda Martinez were game-changers for his business.
“LAUNCH significantly accelerated my startup and invention, enabling me to leap forward,” Gorsuch said. “LAUNCH funding enables me to hire interns, refine my prototype, and exhibit my invention at the annual international biotechnology conference in San Diego this June.”
Other finalists included Saman Mostafazadeh-Fard, Zohrab Samani and Paola Bandini, with a liquid organic fertilizer for organic farming; Kavin Sundarnath and Sarada Kuravi with MagH2 Storage, a technology that can be used to provide power to portable fuel cells; and Cody Champion with ResistaNet, a substance that can be added to existing insecticides on coated bed nets to make resistant mosquitoes more subjectable and susceptible to existing insecticides.
The teams were judged both on their commercial viability and the progress made during the four-month program. Judges included business development consultant and licensing professional Dick Welter; Arrowhead Innovation Fund Manager Estela Hernandez; Sinuate Media CEO Leah Messina; CoWork Oasis co-founder and venture capitalist Robert Herrera; intellectual property attorneys Elizabeth Mata and Steve McLary; Jeff Fuchsberg, director of intellectual property and innovation projects at Medical Center of the Americas Foundation; and Stephen Voglewede, director of strategic initiatives at the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation’s RedSky subsidiary.
New components of the program this year included an electronic workbook curriculum to guide participants through the process, and marketing and product development components to help participants pivot in a new direction if their early exploration demonstrates that a change in their strategy is needed. The IP Office also developed a Lean Launch canvas that asks participants to evaluate their internal and external environments.
“The external market is constantly changing,” said Terry Lombard, director of intellectual property and technology transfer for Arrowhead Center, who oversees the LAUNCH program. “For example, someone who was interested in an international market may face a new tariff, or an EPA regulation shift may change the demand for a technological innovation.”
For that reason, she said, sometimes the measure of success for technology is an early decision to pivot the direction of a venture or fail fast, before significant investment of time or money has been made.
NMSU Geological Sciences Department Head and Regents Professor Nancy McMillan, winner of the crowd favorite and social media campaign awards in the 2016 LAUNCH competition, reflected during last week’s reception on what her team learned from the program.
“LAUNCH is ruthless. The pace is ruthless – the idea of a pitch and marketing plan was new to me as a researcher,” she told the reception guests. “The program taught me ruthless creativity: I could not afford to not be creative. It taught me ruthless courage, as sometimes the process was slow. It also taught me ruthless open-mindedness: I had to be open-minded to honest criticism from the technology commercialization associates, which has helped me with receiving subsequent National Science Foundation criticism.”
Duttle pointed to two patents awarded this academic year to past LAUNCH winners and NMSU faculty members Geoffrey Smith and Jessica Houston as examples of how the program can accelerate a technology’s progress to the next step on its commercialization journey.
“We were excited to share the news of these patents and hear from Dr. Smith and Dr. Houston at our reception,” Duttle said. “We’re already beginning the groundwork for our next round of LAUNCH, and looking forward to seeing the continued growth of the companies we worked with this year.”
LAUNCH will open for another round of applications in August 2017. For more information, visit arrowheadcenter.nmsu.edu/launch.