Professor-led startups at the University of Austin at Texas just got a big boost in seed stage funding this week.
Bob Metcalfe, director of the Innovation Center at UT and professor of innovation, and Robyn Metcalfe, director of Food+City at UT, donated $100,000 through their Metcalfe Family Foundation to supportInnovation Grants.
It’s a case of putting their money where their passion lies.
Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet, co-founder of 3Com and a faculty member of the Cockrell School of Engineering for six years, has been a huge proponent for spinning out new startups from research being done at the university. He has led Longhorn Startups with Joshua Baer, founder of Capital Factory, to instill entrepreneurial skills in undergraduates.
For the past few years, Metcalfe has shifted his focus to primarily help professors get their projects out of the lab and into the marketplace.
Robyn Metcalfe has also led Food+City, formerly the Food Lab, at UT for the past six years and runs an annual contest to promote innovation within the food industry. The organization publishes online and through an annual print magazine. It also hosts events and an annual Food+City Challenge Prize with $50,000 in prizes.
“We’ve had a family foundation for some years supporting higher education, and Robyn and I are now immersed in this startup activity at UT and we see it as a really obvious way to get the low hanging fruit of research results and get it to market,” Metcalfe said. “My theory is that a lot of it is being stuck because of this valley of death to research commercialization.”
On Wednesday night, both attended the monthly Startup Studio on the 10th floor of the Ernest Cockrell Engineering building to watch three professors pitch their ideas. The Innovation Center has held these studios for five years showcasing the work of 135 professors to date. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and WeWork sponsor the monthly events.
The Innovation Grants, which range in size from $5,000 to $50,000, help those founders in the early stages of their companies.
In addition to the Metcalfe Family Foundation gift, the Innovation Center also received $100,000 gift from Fidelity Investments, a $10,000 gift from Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, a national law firm based in Milwaukee, Wisc., and a $5,000 gift from Nokia Bell Labs.
The goal is to raise $2 million for Innovation Grants annually and to fund 24 protostartups a year, Metcalfe said.
“Protostartups is a word we made up to describe a wide range of early startup development stages,” according to a news statement from Metcalfe. “We expect that as protostartups mature, they will incorporate, license technologies, raise additional research funding, raise venture funding, recruit personnel, develop products, sell products, record revenue, and move off campus, not necessarily in that order.”
The Innovation Center works with other organizations within the UT startup ecosystem including the Austin Technology Incubator, Office of Technology Commercialization, Texas Venture Labs, Dell Medical School’s Texas Health Catalyst program and the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program.
The Innovation Center has already awarded two grants in February. Luis Sentis, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, received $40,000 for his robotics startup Apptronik, which makes actuators, the motors controlling robotic movement. Richard Crawford, who runs nVariate, a software design startup, received $20,000. His is also a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
“Last spring, Professor Sentis came to us and demonstrated the revolutionary actuator, and Bob helped him identify the path to the market, Louise Epstein, managing director of the Innovation Center, said in UT News story. The gifts to the Innovation Grants fund are critical to bridging the gap to commercialization for these startups, Epstein said.