World-Class Venture Accelerator Supporting U-M Startups

A Conversation with Innovation Manager Diane Bouis

The U-M Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) exists to ensure that Michigan research and discoveries get a chance to have the greatest possible impact in the world. But how do you do that?

One of the aspects of our credo to “fuel a region and solve the world’s great challenges” is through tangible support and advice. And where startups are concerned, that’s where the OTT Venture Center team comes in. The Venture Accelerator, part of the University of Michigan Venture Center, offers dedicated lab and office space in close proximity to the resources, specialists, and services of U-M Tech Transfer. The Venture Accelerator is available to U-M startups that have a license or option from U-M Tech Transfer. It offers flexible leases to world-class lab and office space adjacent to U-M Tech Transfer within the U-M North Campus Research Complex. The Venture Center team provides the company with personalized service and networking opportunities designed to support the company’s growth.

We spoke to Diane Bouis who manages the Venture Accelerator about her role at the university and in the community. If you have spent any time in the Ann Arbor venture ecosystem you have probably run into Diane at one of the many networking events around town.

Q – Can you please give us a brief description of your role?

I manage the Venture Accelerator. My title is Innovation Manager, but what I really am is the landlord and mother hen to 20 startups. I manage 11k sq ft of offices and labs dedicated to U-M startups that are based on IP generated at U-M. The mother-henning part is helping startups find and use resources and network to be successful. Those connections can be advice, people, or money; usually, it’s a combination in different portions. On the advice portion, I’m a bit of an extension of the office’s mentor-in-residence (MIR) pool. But my real area of focus is on talent – working to connect U-M startups and projects with business talent. Somebody meets somebody interesting – ‘you should talk to Diane.’ When a company is looking for someone, especially business talent, I crank the Rolodex to see who might be a good fit.

Q – When did you start at Michigan and how did you gain the skill set for this job?

I started in September 2018. As a medical scientist I was working in innovation consulting, which is another way of saying teaching, coaching, and practicing lean startup intrapreneurship inside of Fortune 50 companies. I enjoyed that, but I wanted to get back closer to the scientists.

Q – What would you say is the value-add of the Venture Accelerator to the university, and to the local ecosystem?

Tech Transfer and the Venture Center have really smart and experienced people and we have world-class labs. That’s the immediate answer – it helps recruit world-class faculty and helps cement the university’s status as a leader in tech transfer.

Diane Bouis, Innovation Manager, University of Michigan Venture Accelerator, located in the North Campus Research Complex. Photo courtesy Cronicle Press Tech News

More deeply, I would say that when you are starting a company, there are so many things you don’t know. So that’s where the interplay at our office is so important. It’s not just me – it’s the entire Tech Transfer team working with the same vision and goals in mind, which includes our Licensing, Venture Center and MIR teams. Early stage startups often receive their first funding from a federal innovation award such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant. This new company needs an address and often a lab that is focused on company research rather than academic research. Prior to the Venture Accelerator that was a really daunting task for our faculty members who had not started a company previously. That’s often the first interaction that I have with them – talk to Diane, at the Venture Accelerator, and if she doesn’t have a space for you or if the space doesn’t fit your needs, she knows the other accelerators in the area and she can help find you a lab.

When the Venture Accelerator started over a decade ago, there were very few commercial labs that could be rented around Ann Arbor. The startup landscape has changed since then and there are more options. Still, labs are in short supply in town and demand continues to increase. The third value proposition for the Venture Accelerator is physical proximity. The Venture Accelerator is the closest laboratory space available for rent for our startups and faculty to the U-M campus. There are quite literally PIs who are upstairs or downstairs from us doing their academic research and then can come to their Venture Accelerator space when working on company related tasks. This proximity is a tremendous advantage we can provide to the University community.

Q – You mentioned that the first interaction you have is often finding lab space. Where does it go from there? Let’s say that there is space in the Venture Accelerator – how do you go about getting to know the company and what they need and how you can help them?

I’m genuinely interested in knowing and understanding what they’re doing and then giving pieces of useful information. The more often I do that, the more likely they are to come back with a question or request for help. It’s trust and relationship building a key component to any successful startup. Often I already know the people involved because I’ve been a part of the ecosystem for so long. Word of mouth is often the single best way to communicate anything we do to improve engagement.

Q – What is the difference between an incubator and accelerator?

The definition of an incubator is that it only provides space. You give me a check, I give you a key. It’s a space and I’m your landlord. An accelerator typically provides support and resources beyond just space. Sometimes the support is in the form of programming and mentorship, sometimes it is through investment.

The U-M Venture Accelerator provides world-class space, convenient access to Mentors in Residence and IP/Licensing professionals, and other amenities to accelerate the commercialization of U-M startups. And, with our new investment fund set to launch in 2021, we will also be able to provide investment funding to select U-M startups as well.

Q – Do you have a vision for the Venture Accelerator, e.g., how do you help the accelerator stay on the innovative edge of what accelerators can offer?

We are exploring entrepreneur focused programs and providing additional special discounts and services for all of our startups. Currently our tenants receive perks like Amazon Web Service credits and shipping discounts, etc…Part of my roles in the Venture Accelerator is offering monthly events where service providers or experts can provide information and advice in areas that many of our faculty may not be familiar with. I also make an extra effort to help company teams talk with each other. I’m a huge believer that startups teams can learn so much from each other’s experiences. It is important that they know that the challenges and problems they are dealing with in their new companies are not unique. That’s also a great reason to be in an incubator or accelerator and not in your garage…

A big part of the value proposition of the Venture Accelerator is that we can provide expertise directly or make the connections that help startups thrive. Connections to potential customers, people that can join the startup, and funding. Realistically, as an organization, there’s not an industry or a company that U-M Tech Transfer can’t engage with given the vast research enterprise of the University and our variety of corporate connections. Whatever it is that a startup is looking for, we know someone directly or indirectly. This is the value that Tech Transfer and the Venture Center provide and is the key component of the value advantage of the Venture Accelerator.

Finally we will also have a venture fund, the Accelerate Blue Fund, that will be laser focused on financially supporting U-M IP based startups. All of these factors set our accelerator up for being as close to a “one-stop-shop” as we can make it.

Q – How are you staying connected to the local entrepreneurial ecosystem during COVID? Do you have advice for how people can stay engaged?

My motto has always been to show up. Pre-COVID, that was at in-person events. During COVID, that is at online events. I find that unless people see you with a certain amount of frequency, you’re just not top of mind when they are talking about opportunities. Staying connected to different communities is very important given our startups span virtually every technical industry. By showing up, people remember me and when they meet someone who has a specific question or idea, they often wash up on my shores.

That’s what it looks like when it works – a random encounter of two people and somebody says ‘oh you should talk to Diane.’ That’s what success looks like in the people-ing sector.

Q – Advice and money were the other two things you mentioned. What are your recipes for success there?

So for ‘advice,’ first and foremost the Mentors in Residence. They have tons of experience and knowledge having worked in startups, industry and venture capital prior to coming to U-M. The MIRs are a key component to our commercialization process and actively work with hundreds of startup projects each year and continue to support startups after they launch.

In regards to money, we do our best to make sure that our startups have access to investors and to sources of non-dilutive funding like grants. One unique thing we do at the Venture Center is to send out a quarterly pipeline report of our projects and companies, including companies that are fundraising, to over 500 investors around the country and internationally. The report provides companies an easy way to communicate how much money they need, what they are working on, and who is involved. This is a key tool we use to keep investors informed of the potential investment opportunities coming out of the University. The report has led to seven new investments in U-M startups over the past three years and dramatically improved our engagement with investors across the country.

Q – Any topics that we didn’t cover that you want to touch on?

Diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s embedded in the people-ing I am so passionate about. It is a proven fact that having diverse teams in companies, or any organization for that matter, improves outcomes. Startups and the Venture Capital industry have become much more aware of this DEI recently, and while making improvements have a long way to go. The university is also making a concerted effort and significant progress to improve DEI awareness on campus. My role at U-M provides me the opportunity to engage in DEI efforts within the university ecosystem as well as the entrepreneurial ecosystem in SE Michigan. I find this work of critical importance and relevance to the work I do at Tech Transfer. It is a wonderful position to be in and exactly why I think U-M and Tech Transfer is the right place for me as it provides me with a big platform in supporting DEI initiatives with a large community.

For more information on the Venture Accelerator, contact Diane Bouis.