WPI and the Entrepreneur
by Jim Schakenbach
The nineties will be remembered, among other things, as the Entrepreneurial Decade. New business start-ups - especially in technology sectors - reached an all-time high as record amounts of venture capital found its way into the hands of forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
WPI, recognizing early on the importance of this trend toward technological development, started its Venture Forum in 1990 as an outreach program to encourage and support entrepreneurial activities in the greater Worcester area. The school expanded its program in 1993 to include the Entrepreneurs Collaborative which was created to foster entrepreneurial thinking within the WPI community. In 1999, WPI further strengthened its commitment to entrepreneurship by reorganizing its entrepreneurial activities in the broader-focused Collaborative for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CEI) which encompassed both of the previous programs.
Today, after a decade of entrepreneurial development and support, both communities - the academic and the corporate - are reaping the benefits. As a result of the CEI's active inreach and outreach programs, the school can point to a number of successful business ventures spawned from the positive collaboration of students, faculty, and alumni. One of them is Expressive Constructs, Inc.(ECI), whose president, Dr. Mitchell Sanders, is a WPI affiliate professor and '88 graduate.
ECI, which does business under the name ECI Biotech, is an early stage protein biochemistry company. The firm has developed a number of novel enzymes and substrates that change color in the presence of a wide range of pathogens and toxins and can be used to detect infections, various molds, and dangerous compounds, to name just a few uses.
At first glance, you might mistake Mitch Sanders for a typical young entrepreneur - full of boyish charm and enthusiasm, well-versed in his science, but perhaps short on business acumen. In reality, he is not only an idealistic scientist, but a smart businessman and marketer as well.
"I always wanted to set up my own company," said Sanders during a recent interview. After earning his Master's degree and PhD at WPI, Sanders did post-doctorate work at MIT where he made several invention disclosures - basically a process by which an academic publishes the fact that he or she has invented something - which led to a chemical company picking up his inventions. "I found it intriguing that you could do something and instantly have it have commercial value", commented Sanders.
After a short-lived career in a large corporation, Sanders set out on his own in 1998, incorporating his fledging company using an off-the-shelf incorporation kit he bought at Staples. "I didn't even have a lawyer," he noted. His first lab was a hole in the wall that cost just $150 a month and was built for him by his brother-in-law. His first round of financing came from friends and family, some of whom sat on his board.
"It was a real eye-opener," stated Sanders. "I had to learn a whole new set of skills. My background is being a nerd; I had to go out and learn to be a people person." According to Sanders, one of the best things he did was go around and knock on the doors of anybody who was credible and pick the brains of some of the best CEOs in the Worcester area. He also got what he called "a real board" and became one of the first guinea pigs in WPI's fledging entrepreneurial program.
One of the first things he learned from his board and the Venture Forum was that he was running a "lifestyle" company - that is, a company that could always provide him with a comfortable living, but that would never attract meaningful venture investment enabling it to grow to significance. With their advice, he ended up making painful decisions about the structure and course of his company that would ultimately benefit it, enabling him to close deals and begin bringing in outside money from corporate sponsors. "These were hard lessons, but they needed to be learned," Sanders commented. Sanders also learned that although he knew he could do good science, that wasn't enough. "There were lots of deals out there, but we had to be careful to pick the right ones. We had to demonstrate that we could actually deliver real products, not just great science."
Sanders observed that part of being a good entrepreneur is letting the market determine where the science is going. An early mistake he made was developing a protein sensor that he believed should be incorporated into food packaging to detect the presence of the food pathogen listeria. After approaching a major national meat packer with what appeared to be a very sound idea, he was startled to hear that it would never see the light of day because it was something the market did not want. "I was told that consumers don't want to see that their food is contaminated in the store," said Sanders. "Now we do things backwards: Here's the product that's needed, here's the value added proposition, and finally, here's the science that's going to get us there." Another valuable lesson learned.
Taking advantage of WPI connections
Sanders credits part of his success to ongoing relationships with several departments at WPI. "We have a great relationship with the Biology Department, using the work study program as a benchmark to identify and latch onto top students. "WPI students are not just thinkers, they're doers," he said.
In addition to maintaining contact with various WPI departments, Sanders continues to be involved in the entrepreneurial programs. "The Forum has been very beneficial - it's grown nicely. There are new things on campus that are enriching young entrepreneurs," he observed. "There are plenty of good people in the Worcester area and within the WPI community who can say what's good science. If we get some business guys in on these conversations, they can say 'there's a market for this'."
Sanders encourages WPI students, alumni, and outside business people to take advantage of everything the school has to offer. For young businesses, "there are plenty of good people in the Management Department and other departments who have the skills to help you jumpstart your program, to give you a headstart," said Sanders. "The student resources alone make it worthwhile. The students come out of there with their heads screwed on straight."