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Venture Lab gives UC community opportunities, support

University of Cincinnati’s startup ecosystem at 1819 Innovation Hub readies faculty, staff, students and alumni to turn their entrepreneurial ideas into businesses

The Venture Lab program at the University of Cincinnati’s 1819 Innovation Hub is fast. Really fast.

Despite being classified as a “pre-accelerator” program, UC community members learn how to turn their creations into viable business ideas in just seven weeks. The journey of Venture Lab’s second class culminated Oct. 23 at the 1819 Innovation Hub.

The Venture Lab at 1819 significantly speeds up the process of getting technologies developed at the university to market. The new approach is in keeping with the university’s strategic direction, Next Lives Here.

“This is how we move at UC — this is Next,” said Jason Heikenfeld, UC professor and assistant vice president of commercialization. “We have fundamentally re-envisioned how public, urban universities should launch startups.”

A close-up of a man speaking in front of a video screen.

UC Director of Startups Grant Hoffman introduces the Venture Lab graduates. Photo/Jay Yocis/UC Creative Services

In front of a room packed with faculty, staff and members of Cincinnati’s startup community, the freshly minted entrepreneurs unveiled their plans for turning their inventions and creations into viable businesses. The ideas ranged broadly from sensor-fed artificial intelligence software that can predict when manufacturing equipment will need to be serviced to software that helps students overcome the barrier of dyslexia while helping them learn to read.

“The whole point of the graduation day is not to pitch for funding, like at a traditional demo day,” said Grant Hoffman, 1819’s director of startups and leader of the Venture Lab program. “It’s about trying to get people excited about what you’re working on so that they’ll come help you get that technology out of the university setting.”

By that standard, Tuesday was a massive success. Of the nine companies that presented at the Venture Lab graduation, the program’s pool of entrepreneurs in residence expressed interest in providing guidance to eight of them, Hoffman said.

But that’s not to say funding isn’t a possibility. Two Venture Lab startups have already secured financial support. The first, Amplify Sciences, has also attracted outside leadership from CincyTech, a Cincinnati venture capital group with plans to locate to 1819. The company, founded by UC grads Andrew Jajack ‘18 and Eliot Gomez ‘18, is using technologies they developed in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ Novel Device Lab to bring to market a more accurate flu test that’s also easier to use than anything currently available. And a company from this group — See Word, maker of the aforementioned literacy software developed by founder and DAAP professor Renee Seward — is ready to launch.

A woman speaks in front of a large video screen that displays white and yellow words on a blue screen.

DAAP communication design professor Renee Seward explains how her startup, See Word, will help students overcome barriers to learning how to read. Photo/Jay Yocis/UC Creative Services

"Nancy Koors, my entreprenuer in residence, has been so valuable," says Seward. "She has taught me so many lessons about how to be a successful entrepreneur. Without the support and education provided by Venture Lab, I would not have been able to launch my business." 

The UC Venture Lab at 1819 builds on UC's past investments in startups, including UC's previous accelerator model and UC's Center for Entrepreneurship and Commercialization in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business. What makes it different: volume. Instead of focusing on predicting success, Venture Lab prepares teams quickly so the outside world can inform them if they have a winning value proposition.

“The Venture Lab model is simple: We focus university resources on activating potential entrepreneurs and startups teams on campus, and then this seven-week pre-accelerator curates these teams into a high density of startup opportunities,” said Heikenfeld. “What is magic about this is that by creating this density of opportunity, external entrepreneurial talent and investor capital can then sweep in early and aggressively to lead the teams forward.”

And if an idea doesn’t attract support, then UC innovators can quickly pivot. That’s what happened to Tropos, a team from the second Venture Lab group that had developed a product for users of Kong, a popular open-source software. The Tropos team used its presentation time Tuesday to explain that the market had spoken — no one was interested in buying what they planned to sell, and it was time to change course.

A seated man in the audience gestures with his hand while asking a question.

An audience member asks a question of one of the presenters at the Venture Lab graduation day on Tuesday, Oct. 23, at the 1819 Innovation Hub. Photo/Jay Yocis/UC Creative Services

“Our program is all about being authentic,” said Hoffman. “We don’t want to be about the theater of entrepreneurship here. We want to tell the real stories, and the real story should be that they don’t all make it.”

But for those that are ready to move forward, UC’s Office of Innovation has simplified the process of getting tech developed at UC into the market. “Our goal is to see as many successful startups as we can,” says Geoffrey Pinski, the Office of Innovation’s director of tech transfer, “so we’ve come up with an express license — a set of terms that are straightforward and easy to comprehend.” The express license eliminates the back-and-forth negotiations that came with the old way of doing things. It spells out the cost to license UC-owned technologies, and it’s not restrictive in the eyes of investors, Pinski said. “UC still gets its return if the company is highly successful, and the company is in a position to raise capital and move forward as quickly as possible.”

All of these changes promise to be attractive to faculty and students, some who may have been hesitant to come forward with technologies developed at UC. With more trust, more support from an advisory standpoint and more opportunities for funding, the new model is a “win-win-win” for innovators, the institution and the broader community, says Heikenfeld.

“We can seamlessly match up with entrepreneurs, and no one has to do anything extraordinary,” he says. “We want people to come here because we create value.”

Innovate with us

Reuters ranked the University of Cincinnati among the world’s top 100 most innovative companies in 2018. Free to UC students, staff, faculty and alumni, the Venture Lab promises to keep UC on an upward trajectory.

Have a business idea? The Venture Lab pre-accelerator program at UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub is accepting applications for its third cohort, which will begin Jan. 15, 2019. Email the Venture Lab to receive an application.


Next Lives Here

See more news related to UC's Next Lives Here strategic direction.