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From Lab to Launch

Tennessee is well stocked with colleges and universities from one end of the state to the other, and all of them are hotbeds of innovation and ideas. However, too often those ideas don’t get the exposure they deserve, because students are busy with the demands of their academic programs to consider bringing their work to the commercial market.

To help bridge that gap, many Tennessee schools have created programs to help connect on-campus innovators with mentors and financial backers from the state’s business community. Even so, many of those programs hit roadblocks around access to markets, and that’s why Launch Tennessee created the University Venture Challenge (UVC) in 2015.

Simply put, the UVC exists to highlight and increase student-led entrepreneurial ventures in the state, and then connect the best of those to Launch Tennessee’s deep network of resources. It does so by working with 10 universities and 16 different entrepreneurial competitions, with the winners of those competing in the annual statewide UVC.

In addition, up to 20 finalists in the UVC will pitch for prize money at Launch Tennessee’s annual 36|86 conference during a special session, with winners chosen in five categories:

  • Commercialized Technology
  • Software/Technology Enabled
  • Consumer Goods
  • Social Enterprise
  • Idea Stage

Competitors also will be able to apply for The TENN Master Accelerator program.

All told, the UVC is a robust way for entrepreneurs at the academic level to engage with the state’s broader startup and funding communities, says Thomas Beck, executive director of Vanderbilt University’s Tech Venture Challenge, which began in 2011 and became a UVC affiliate in 2015. He also is a post-doctoral fellow working the field of metabolism.

“At the time, our challenge was a mechanism for grad and post-doctoral students to really explore a career in entrepreneurship,” Beck says, “Not all of them have ideas that they can just start commercializing, but others were working with our technology and transfer office so they could begin the commercialization process. The competition was meant to support and enhance those efforts.”

Vanderbilt’s challenge runs about 10 weeks, with teams working with scientific advisors, investors and business mentors. Beck, a former challenge participant himself, worked with a Nashville-based venture capitalist. He says the end goals include a developed business plan and a successful business pitch, which greatly help the developers of new technology connect to the marketplace. And with the UVC partnership, he adds, even more will be possible.

“We were able to increase our cash prizes, which encouraged more people to participate, but beyond that Launch Tennessee has helped us bring a greater awareness to the program overall,” Beck says. “It’s great for the inventors, because they are usually the principal investigators and so are swamped with writing grants, and running and managing their labs. These competitions give them hands-on experience in how a business is run, how a start-up really starts, as well as giving some networking opportunities to the local business and professional community.”

The UVC, and the campus-based competitions which feed into it, will continue to help smooth the path for academians with great innovations to get the marketplace, Beck says, and he’s got a ready-made case to prove it.

“InvisionHeart, a mobile, cloud-based ECG system to monitor heart rates and provide EKG readings, was born out of the Tech Venture Challenge,” he says. “We’ve had some other startups come out of it as well, so our competition has demonstrated its value. Working with Launch Tennessee, we hope to continue and expand upon what we’ve been able to accomplish so far.”

Get the Inside Scoop

Learn more about Launch Tennessee’s University Venture Challenge, including how to become a participating college or university.

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