Challenges and opportunities for a university spin-off

Published February 1, 2019 by Martin Rosvall

Turning a novel research idea into a university spinoff is a long and challenging endeavor, but fortunately, many people want to see you succeed. For us, the journey started almost ten years ago.

The ability to simplify and highlight structures in large networks had proven useful across several scientific disciplines. Motivated by feedback and thank-you messages from researchers around the world, we worked hard to improve our algorithms, develop new features, and simplify the interface. We knew that turning an overload of relational data into insightful maps that can reveal stories in the data is a universal challenge, so we couldn't resist asking: How much value can we generate to users outside academia? We had to find out.

Luckily, the business developers at Umeå University's tech transfer, Uminova Innovation, saw the potential and shared our curiosity. By discussing business ideas and providing resources to test and refine them, they kick-started our journey into the unknown business world.

However, business developers' support and backslapping can only take you so far. Reality is a different game. When we had talked the talk and excited someone who knew someone else whose problem we might be able to solve, it was time to walk the walk. Outcome: a research paper but no customer.

Indeed, the real challenge is to champion both research and entrepreneurship at the same time. Science requires full commitment. The creative endeavor of turning novel research ideas into published papers that get cited is not a part-time job. Simultaneously pushing the research frontier and exploring business opportunities requires a business companion.

After a fortunate turn of events, an experienced business captain came on board. He could see things from a different perspective and help us to navigate across the gap between academia and business. Still, distilling years of research and technical expertise into a solution that solves customers' problems and then successfully communicating that solution via short windows of attention is a venture. Trying new directions and experiencing setbacks hurts, but there is no other way forward.

Moreover, the process of tweaking a business idea through several pilot projects and iteratively developing a solution also requires a no-bullshit investor and an outstanding team with both a shared vision and a mindset that accepts delayed gratification. For us, a key to the process is a research lab that attracts brilliant students and young researchers who answer "Yes!" to every "Is it possible to build that?" and springboards them into the business endeavor. Optimism and hunger is our recipe for progress.

While our journey hasn't been straight, and has sometimes been rough in shallow waters, now we are sailing on the open sea. It is time to raise the mainsail.

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