Inventors don’t stand alone at WPI. The spinoff of VitaThreads got a leg up from two initiatives designed to help university researchers become entrepreneurs.
The Tech Advisors Network (TAN) serves as a virtual incubator that connects aspiring entrepreneurs with experienced advisors who are alumni and friends of WPI. VitaThreads was advised by a dream team that included four alumni trustees, another alumnus with extensive technology marketing experience, and team captain Dave Mahoney, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor.
Mark Rice, PhD, professor in the WPI School of Business, says VitaThreads was among the inaugural cohort of companies to apply for TAN assistance, and its presentation attracted an outstanding advising team that offered specific expertise on the regulatory approval process, networking, attracting financing, and determining an initial market. “They all brought something to the table that we needed to hear,” says Gaudette, from advice on determining how much office space to rent, to a rundown of important questions to ask when selecting a patent attorney.
VitaThreads was also a pilot program for WPI’s Accelerator Fund, which offers early-stage investments in promising research ventures hatched from the TAN incubator. This seed funding can bridge the gap until a company is in a position to seek outside venture capital.
“We don’t just hand over the money,” says Todd Keiller, WPI’s director of intellectual property and innovation. “Projects must have clear commercial outcomes and must pass milestones at various stages.” An independent committee, composed of TAN members, makes the investment decisions. Successful applications receive up to $100,000 (typical investments are expected to be between $30,000 and $40,000) in the form of a convertible note that must be repaid or converted to equity in the company.
With a modest $20 million research base, Keiller says, WPI outperforms larger institutions in the number of start-ups, invention disclosures, patents, and licensing. “We’re spinning out as many companies as Tufts and, for our size, we maintain a higher rate of IP disclosures than Harvard. We’re running four to five times the national average.
“I attribute it to WPI’s project-based curriculum. Our students are entrepreneurial, which makes our faculty more entrepreneurial. And it’s all over the board. I’ve handled IP disclosures from faculty members in music and biomedical engineering, and everything in between.”