Start Me Up
BU’s business incubator brings an entrepreneurial culture to campus
Raj Mohanty specializes in quantum mechanics, a field the College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of physics admits is about as abstract as it gets. But every day, the applications of his research are increasingly concrete, thanks in part to Boston University’s Technology Business Incubator, which is helping Mohanty grow a start-up company whose technology will provide more rapid and higher quality connections to multifunction wireless devices. Think souped-up iPhones.
“The idea is to go smaller, faster, and better,” says Mohanty. But there are many steps between a technology in the laboratory and a business with a salable product, including licensing, prototype development, staffing, and marketing, to name just a few. And that’s where the business incubator comes in.
Overseen by BU’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), the incubator provides about two years of assistance — from office space to equipment to mentoring — to young companies in exchange for incubation fees and participation in academic initiatives. It’s housed on the sixth floor of BU’s Photonics Center, which manages the facility and provides the start-ups with administrative and technical support. While BU has been spinning out start-ups for more than a decade, the focus of the incubator recently changed, from seeking young companies as investments to creating an entrepreneurial culture on campus, thereby increasing educational opportunities for students and enhancing the University’s reputation for commercializing technology.
“I like to think of the business incubator as a small, high-tech business park right here on campus, where we can teach entrepreneurship in a very real-world environment,” says Clifford Robinson, OTD’s director of business incubation.
Indeed, OTD is partnering with the School of Management’s Institute of Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization (ITEC), which teaches entrepreneurial management to undergraduate and graduate students.
“As part of their course work, the ITEC students can now get an internship with our start-up companies, instead of learning entrepreneurship just from case studies,” says Robinson. In addition to providing internships, OTD and ITEC recently launched the Entrepreneurial Research Lab (ERL), a branch of the business incubator that supports BU grads who have started technology companies. The first start-up to go through the ERL is Boston Microfluidics, Inc. Founded by Brandon Johnson (ENG’04), the company is working on a new medical device for the rapid diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases.
BU’s incubator is now 90 percent full, with 11 start-ups developing products ranging from disease-specific DNA micro-arrays to a new type of photovoltaic cell for clean energy. About half of them are spun out of BU research, like Sand9, Mohanty’s company, while the rest originated in labs outside of BU and usually are farther along in their development.
These companies “are typically already well funded and are run by experienced entrepreneurs,” says Robinson. “With them comes their networks of business leaders and investors, and they act as mentors to our internal companies.”
While at BU, all the companies in the incubator have access to certain University labs (for a fee) and other facilities, such as the library, and they can also collaborate with the University on grants or on existing programs.
Both the start-ups and BU benefit from the arrangement, according to Mohanty and Robinson. Mohanty says being an incubated company is like “living in a nice condominium,” where you don’t have to shovel the snow or have sole responsibility for major repairs. “You have the infrastructure from the operations side and you have facilities, which are of tremendous use,” he says. “That’s a huge deal, especially when you’re just starting out.”
Robinson says that start-ups are a fast-growing part of the economy, and so providing students with real-life entrepreneurship experience is increasingly vital in the postgraduation job market.
“Technology innovation has moved away from large corporations and into the realm of start-ups. This is a shift in our economy,” he says. “And BU is now becoming an important part of that industry.”
Chris Berdik can be reached at email@example.com.