Fast Companies

Alabama Launchpad Competition Propels UAB Start-Ups

By Cary Estes


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When the team at Innovative Composite Solutions made its first attempt at wowing the judges—and scoring $100,000 in seed money—in the Alabama Launchpad competition in 2008, its proposal didn’t even get off the ground. But that initial setback proved to be an important step in transforming the UAB researchers’ tech-fueled dream into an actual start-up company.

The annual Alabama Launchpad competition, which is a program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama Foundation, is designed to help bridge the gap between research technology and marketplace reality.

Innovative Composite Solutions, led by UAB School of Engineering assistant professor Selvum “Brian” Pillay, Ph.D., had formulated a thermoplastic composite that is a lighter and stronger alternative to metal. It was an ideal product to market to the military and aerospace industries.

“The first proposal we wrote was very technical. Being engineers, that’s what we do,” says Pillay. The Launchpad judges “cut out about 90 percent of our first proposal, and they said we still had too much technical information,” he recalls. “We thought everybody wanted to know about the technology. We found out that nobody wanted to know about the technology, and everybody wanted to know about the business.”

“We thought everybody wanted to know about the technology. We found out that nobody wanted to know about the technology, and everybody wanted to know about the business.”

Pillay’s team learned its lessons, going on to win the 2008-2009 competition and the all-important seed capital. The company was officially formed later that year, and Pillay said orders have “steadily increased” since then.

UAB has had numerous Alabama Launchpad entries since the statewide competition began in 2006. The university accounted for six of the 16 finalists in the 2011-2012 competition, the most of any institution.

One of the primary things participants learn, according to Launchpad president Angela Wier, is that “a great technology by itself does not make a great business.”

This was an important lesson learned by John Hartman, M.D., an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Genetics, whose Spectrum PhenomX team won second place and $50,000 in the 2008-2009 contest.

“Prior to Launchpad, I had no exposure to concepts of commercializing research,” Hartman says. “During Launchpad, you begin learning how to write a business plan and how to focus the presentation of your research on aspects that potential investors might care about. Research and research commercialization can be quite different. If research is fundamentally new, commercialization can lag by several years, and timing is very important.”

Wier notes that UAB was a founding Launchpad partner and “helped establish and evolve the vetting processes used today.” She says she is thankful for the contributions of UAB business professor Doug Ayers, Ph.D. “Doug was a founding board member of Launchpad and played a key role within UAB by connecting students and teams to the competition.”