By Thomas Guengerich
SOCORRO, N.M., Feb. 2, 2009 – New Mexico Tech’s management department and the Verge Fund are bringing a host of speakers to campus this spring.
The Verge Fund is a seed stage venture capital fund headquartered in Albuquerque with emphasis on seed investing. Verge Fund Managing General Partner Tom Stephenson said the company focuses on four areas of development: clean technology, software, electronics and human factors.
“We see this as a great opportunity to help expose the New Mexico Tech community to a variety of speakers on topics that may be different from those to which they are accustomed,” Stephenson said.
This is the second year of the Verge Fund Speaker Series at New Mexico Tech. The fall portion of the speaker series was mandatory for management students. The spring portion will feature a yet-to-be-formalized lineup of experts from within and outside of New Mexico.
Dr. Peter Anselmo, chairman of the Management Department at Tech, launched the speaker series several years ago and partnered with the Verge Fund last year. He said the speaker series is one element in an overall effort to help engineering and management students and faculty members learn to see commercial opportunities for scientific applications. One of Anselmo’s basic goals is to form connections – between scientists, industry and customers.
“Getting the word out with the goal of creating those connections is one of the reasons the Speaker Series exists, and we are very grateful to the Verge Fund for their continued enthusiasm about what we’re up to here in the Tech Management Department,” Anselmo said. “The Speaker Series also supports our undergraduate and graduate-level efforts in technology management, and students have been very positive in their responses to the speakers we’ve brought in so far.
Over the years, the Verge Fund and New Mexico Tech have developed a positive working relationship. Stephenson and Anselmo have collaborated on projects and the Verge Fund has employed New Mexico Tech students as interns.
“The Speaker Series has also allowed us to form partnerships with individuals from industry ourselves,” Anselmo said. “The two major out-of-state speakers we brought in last year with Verge Fund are involved in our Management Department outreach and development efforts. Prior to our inviting these individuals to Tech, they had not heard of us. Now they are involved.”
Stephenson said the partnership between the Verge Fund and New Mexico Tech is a natural fit.
“The technology being developed at Tech possesses the core ingredients for successful businesses,” he said. “New Mexico Tech enjoys a solid reputation for world-class research in applied and interesting spaces that will be increasing areas of attention and focus. It makes sense for the university to capitalize on that and build some commercial success.”
Stephenson said the speaker series is just one vehicle that will allow the New Mexico Tech community to be exposed to entrepreneurial opportunities and learn about the requirements.
“The Speaker Series is one gear in the machine,” he said. “There are a lot of activities that need to go on and have been going on to promote interaction between researchers and investors to ultimately create successful businesses.”
Stephenson was among the panelists at the inaugural New Mexico Tech Technology Workshop last fall, which featured seven professors presenting their research to investors and advisors.
“We’re getting Tech researchers linked with the venture capital community,” Anselmo said. “ That process – and it is a process – is helped along by bringing people with commercialization expertise and enthusiasm to Tech. Based on the success of the Technology Forum in October, I’d say that we have a good group of active, smart people who are doing research that might have some commercialization potential.”
Anselmo said researchers should start thinking about market potential early and interested Tech faculty and staff researchers can get ideas about what might work from the Verge Fund Speaker Series presentations.
“People can learn about how the commercialization process works,” he said. The potential is also there for connections between potential funding sources and potential customers. As a result of the forum in October, New Mexico Angels, another investor present at the forum, is working with materials engineering professor Dr. David Burleigh to commercialize a process to anodize steel – an industrial application that prevents steel from corroding.
An increasing number of universities are recognizing that partnerships are critical for them to be successful over time,” Stephenson said. “It’s important to capitalize on intellectual assets to create benefit for the university and its community, particularly in a time when there’s constant pressure on budgets for both research and education.”
Dr. Peter Gerity, New Mexico Tech vice president of academic affairs, was an entrepreneur and businessman before entering higher education. He said universities need to develop relationships with the private sector to take advantage of their business acumen and their perspective.
The three most famous patented product inventions created on university campuses include a New Mexico Tech discovery. Former New Mexico Tech Professor Dr. Frank Etscorn invented the nicotine patch. The other two recognizable campus discoveries are Crest fluoride toothpaste and Gatorade.
“Very few big wins like that come directly from universities,” Gerity said. “And we think of intellectual breakthroughs coming from engineering departments, but that isn’t necessarily the case.”
Fluoride toothpaste was devised at the Indiana University School of Dentistry. Gatorade was developed by the athletic department and the home economics department at University of Florida. Etscorn was a psychology professor at Tech.
“Those cases are very rare. Most universities don’t have the wherewithal or the working base to move technology from the lab bench all the way to final commercialization,” Gerity said. “Typically, universities don’t have the talent to carry that out. That’s not our primary mission.”
Stephenson said connections like those developed at the forum can open doors for professors and researchers, while providing innovative ideas and marketable breakthroughs to investors.
“At the most fundamental level, there is a perception that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door,” Stephenson said. “That’s proven to be a fallacy. There is more to marketing a successful technology than creating the technology. We’re opening eyes to creating an entrepreneurial enterprise. That’s what the Speaker Series is all about.”
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