UA Startup Teams, Ecosystem Network Make it Happen

Monday, December 12, 2016
Commercialization Partner Nick Lim offers advice to entrepreneurial teams during a TLA NSF I-Corps class. Photo credit: Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Commercialization Partner Nick Lim offers advice to entrepreneurial teams during a TLA NSF I-Corps class. Photo credit: Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Tucson, Ariz. –  In November, Tech Launch Arizona hosted a gathering of its Commercialization Partner team. This group of 22 highly qualified technology experts, business leaders and entrepreneurs are hand-picked from TLA’s network of over 1,400 volunteers. All have offered their time and expertise to help refine UA inventions, develop startup strategies and teams, and maximize the impact of UA inventions as TLA moves them from the lab to the marketplace.

“The vision is to highly engage with and leverage the top talent in our extended ecosystem,” says TLA Vice President David Allen, Ph.D. “These are people who are highly connected to the UA and want to see these technologies and companies succeed.”

Network members play a vital role in ensuring that discoveries stemming from University research are developed into successful products and services that will have a meaningful impact on people's lives – directly as in the case of novel medicines or consumer products, and indirectly by way of industrial applications and regional economic development.

Of the 1,400 people in the network, about 50 percent are UA alumni who have an affinity for Tucson, are passionate about the state of Arizona, or are simply curious about early-stage technologies coming out of their fields. Those elements, says Allen, are at the core of their motivation to volunteer for TLA.

“The role of Commercialization Partner in Tech Launch Arizona is highly gratifying for individuals with extensive corporate and venture experience,” says Nick Lim, a new member of the Commercialization Partner team. “TLA shows us innovative research by the University of Arizona’s faculty and students. Working together, we then determine the commercial potential and viability of the research. Outcomes include licensing or startup, whichever is most suitable to the researcher, U of A, and the target market. It’s a fun process, working with a great team.”

According to Eric Smith, TLA’s Commercialization Network manager, the first step in making the process work is getting the right people at the table.

“Each of our network members has been thoroughly vetted,” Smith says, “and we know them well enough to be able to match them with the opportunities where they can make the greatest contributions.”

The process begins when the TLA licensing manager and the Business Development Team, working with the inventor/s, come together to start looking into an invention’s potential market opportunities. They pool their knowledge and decide what kind of minds will be needed around the table to evaluate the technology and develop a successful strategy.                                                            

With those variables determined, Smith then reaches out to the network and gathers a list of interested candidates. The TLA Business Development team then narrows the pool further, deciding on specific individuals they want to connect with for further discussion.

Once the team has enough insights about each contact, they then decide on who to actually engage and bring to the table with the pre-license inventing team as an informal advisor. Through this process, the Business Development team helps narrow down an extensive list, focusing on bringing only those who appear to be the absolute best fit for the team to the table.

“It takes a number of ‘touches’ to get to the right person,” says Smith, “but once the team decides on someone and that person is still aboard and committed to the process, they then become part of the startup team.”

As advisors, the engaged individual’s responsibilities range from developing an intimate knowledge of the technology to advising on startup strategies and team formation to bringing their own business connections to the table.

The goal is to have teams meet every other week for three months. After that time, advisors may evolve their involvement into leadership positions within the startup if they so choose, and if all team members feel that it’s the right fit.

Most recently, TLA helped place network member Ethan Vimont with startup Sharing Tribes, a startup co-founded by Anita Bhappu, Ph.D., associate professor at the Norton School of Family Consumer Sciences in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Through its software platform, the company connects coworkers in private company marketplaces to borrow and lend goods plus volunteer services to help each other and build community engagement. In October, Sharing Tribes won the honor of being one of eight finalists out of an applicant pool of 69 teams at the Cox Business Get Started Tucson pitch competition.

According to Smith, TLA is working to grow the network throughout Arizona, with an initial focus on the Phoenix area.

“We’ve done a great job identifying people in Tucson that have the necessary skills to lead a UA startup,” he says. “We’ve begun looking to grow our Phoenix area connections, as we know that Maricopa County is home to a number of great leaders who may be interested in working with a startup.”

The TLA Commercialization Partner group will gather again in January 2017.

Technology experts and entrepreneurs interested in joining the Commercialization Network and taking advantage of these entrepreneurial opportunities can contact Eric Smith at

Paul Tumarkin