Ideas from a California university inspire research and training in commercialization.
It’s been a year since the launch of the Centre for Technology Entrepreneurship at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). The university creates an average of 115 new companies a year, based on a 2018 analysis, and DTU Entrepreneurship plans to build on that startup success. What is it doing to keep the momentum going?
“We’re giving students an entrepreneurial mindset and toolset,” says DTU Associate Professor Thomas Howard, “to get them to think about commercialization from the beginning of their project.”
Berkeley in Denmark
A major focus at DTU Entrepreneurship is facilitating interactions, for example among external entrepreneurs, DTU engineers and students, and the Copenhagen Business School. The approach of bringing people with different experiences together in an entrepreneurial ecosystem is rooted in collaborations with the University of California Berkeley Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, where students learn about the mindset and process of commercializing an idea. Training emphasizes working in diverse teams and getting practical experience.
The origin story of DTU Entrepreneurship includes this Berkeley model. In 2012, Howard and Jes Broeng, now director of DTU Entrepreneurship, collaborated on a project centered on DTU patents with startup potential. This work earned a 2014 DTU Innovation Prize for Howard, who founded MASH Energy, which generates fuel and other resources from waste.
In 2016, Broeng, cofounder of startups including the optical fiber and laser technology company NKT Photonics, was a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. Anders Bjarklev, now DTU president, came to visit. Back at DTU, with support from Bjarklev, Broeng launched initiatives based on the experience. The initiatives include Open Entrepreneurship to connect researchers with commercializable ideas to people with startup experience, and the DTU Centre for Technology Entrepreneurship, with Howard leading several programs.
One year on
DTU Entrepreneurship has three main areas, Howard says: research, education, and impact. The research focuses on entrepreneurial teams and processes. Education includes a mixed-discipline master’s program that includes the chance for students to develop a business idea. Impact Lab, Howard says, is “a bit of a sandbox” to learn what technology-based industries need from DTU and how DTU scientists can meet those needs and effectively present their solutions to industry partners. Mads Rømer Svendsen, DTU Entrepreneurship project manager, says activities aim to “bridge the gap between research and practical applications.”
A key educational component of DTU Entrepreneurship is X-Tech, a combination of a course and a tech incubator. X-Tech creates teams of business and engineering students and an industry mentor to add value to an idea from a DTU research project, a nonprofit organization, or a company sponsor. Howard, who is head of X-Tech and Impact Lab, explains that sometimes companies have a great idea they aren’t pursuing because it doesn’t fit into their current core business. X-Tech can explore its potential.
An X-Tech team studies the commercialization potential of the idea and develops a startup plan for it. A sponsoring company might buy and develop the plan or take a stake in a startup launched by the team. In any case, students get real-world entrepreneurial training and a company gets the beginnings of a new product line or needed service or a solution to a business problem. “The students are very motivated, Svendsen says, “so they really drive the projects.”
DTU Entrepreneurship now gets university support but plans to reduce that as external support increases. Howard envisions developing themes for X-Tech, sponsored by relevant industries, to develop deeper knowledge and expertise in areas prominent in the Nordic region. Examples might include life sciences, e-health, and food and agriculture, but ideas for new tracks are welcome.
DTU Entrepreneurship is just one part of a larger ecosystem for moving ideas and patents from DTU research into businesses, Howard says. Others include the Tech Transfer office for intellectual property issues and Skylab, the DTU innovation space for students, researchers and external partners.
DTU Entrepreneurship also has a close relationship with the DTU Science Park, says its CEO Steen Donner. The science park supports activities such as X-Tech to promote, develop, and study development of deep technology. These are innovations, Donner says, that are so new that their commercialization has “a long runway” and maybe even an unclear market. “We’re dedicated to servicing that type of startup,” he says, “because deep technology really makes an impact if it succeeds.”
Donner says the science park already has spin-offs from the X-Tech course that are getting help with funding and business and product development. Potential future research collaborations with DTU Entrepreneurship include analyzing data the science park has on companies it has assisted. The analyses could help identify what works and doesn’t work for scaling deep tech startups.
Everyone agrees that the DTU Centre for Technology Entrepreneurship is still in the early days. Its leaders are open to ideas for collaborating, so to the life science and technology industry, Howard has a message: “If you’d like to work with us on a commercialization idea or an entire entrepreneurial theme in your sector, come get a coffee with us.”