Thursday, October 27, 2016

More on the Academy and VCs

MIT sent out a letter to its Community making a statement as to what it is trying to do with it purported VC fund. It states:

Today, innovators in fields like energy, manufacturing, robotics, biotech and medical devices often find it extremely difficult to secure the sustained funding, space, equipment, expertise and networks to fully develop their technologies; this struggle itself can needlessly prolong the development process, stretching it to a decade or more. All too often, "tough-tech" entrepreneurs never find sufficient support, which discourages others from trying, a dynamic that leaves many promising ideas stranded in the lab.  MIT's mission statement directs us not only to "advance knowledge" and "educate students," but also to bring "knowledge to bear on the world's great challenges." If we hope to deliver serious technological solutions to urgent global challenges — like clean water, climate change, sustainable energy, cancer, Alzheimer's, infectious disease, and more — we need to make sure the innovators working on those problems see a realistic pathway to the marketplace. The Engine can provide that pathway by prioritizing breakthrough ideas over early profit, helping to shorten the time it takes these ventures to become "VC-ready," providing local space and comprehensive support in the meantime, and creating an enthusiastic community of inventors and supporters focused on delivering new science-based innovation to make a better world.

The essence of Venture Capital is to seek out people with interesting ideas. However it is "people" first. A leader and a team capable of dealing with the uncertainties of an early stage business.

Yes, at a place like MIT, one whose mission is education and research, there is often a gap between the results of research and the reality of a business. I have seen that for fifty years. On the business side we want dedication, complete and absolute dedication, to the execution of the business. Research is allowed if and only if it is essential to supporting the imminent goals of the business. VC firms are making investments. We are not like DARPA or NSF. I have run research groups in the corporate world, yet even there I demanded a nexus to executable reality.

Now the statement above in my opinion shows gross ignorance of the VC world. Yes there often is a gap between the research product and the marketable entity. Oftentimes the gap is the people. Researchers are all too often not those who can execute. They go on to the next unknown not to delivery of a financially viable product.

Also a University should not, must not, be in the business of selecting winners and losers regarding business options. They know and understand research, not business. So what is "VC ready". To me it means that a team is in place, people who can execute. Those people are dedicated and devoted to the task. They do not want to continue research but want to spend the totality of their existence to execution of a business.

I am still working in this space after fifty years. Ideas from the edge of a University to commercial application. A day to me is eternity. A day to an academic is another Faculty meeting. Grad students oftentimes do not want to go into the real world. Post docs are often worse. They have accepted a position paying a paltry salary to continue research in hopes of some faculty position somewhere in the future. They are often disappointed. Making them entrepreneurs in my experience is both a disservice to them and to any investor.

Medical research is very risky, very costly, and takes many years. Just try and get a new drug through the FDA. The success rates in this area are de minimis. So why encourage researchers to think they can succeed when so many other real business have not.

One must ask why this step was even taken at MIT, an institution surrounded by VCs. It truly is not for want of opportunities or money. It could in my opinion be a poorly envisioned money pit, but worse in my opinion is may take competent researchers and make them think they are entrepreneurs while keep warm in the confines of MIT.