Xconomist of the Week: Tim Mayleben on Building University Startups

Last month, Aastrom Biosciences president and CEO Tim Mayleben and his wife, Dawn, announced they are funding a new “venture shaping” program at the University of Michigan.

Venture shaping refers to the process of systematically vetting a nifty idea for a startup, with the idea that the failure of a less-than-viable business will occur at a much earlier stage before too much financial damage has been done—a key component in supporting new businesses led by student and faculty entrepreneurs.

“My wife and I decided we wanted to give back, and we liked [managing director of U-M’s Zell Lurie Institute] Tim Faley’s scientific approach to new company creation,” Mayleben (see photo below) says.

What the Mayleben Family Venture Shaping Program will do, Mayleben says, is help students weed out failing business ideas earlier. Grants of $500 will be awarded to approximately 25 teams of students or faculty who have an idea for a startup that they want to test or refine. Each team will then evaluate their idea for profitability and market viability through a three-step process.

“The grant is meant to encourage students to do business discovery work,” Faley says. “People are writing plans on vague ideas. That’s an interesting first pass, but go talk to the potential customers and find out what the revenue stream might look like.”

Faley calls the venture shaping program a needed bridge between the university’s 1,000 Pitches competition, which generates raw ideas, and the Dare to Dream program, which awards up to $10,000 to the most promising of those ideas.

“To get students to do the [venture shaping] work without an incentive was challenging,” Faley says. “It fills in a really nice gap.”

Aastrom is an Ann Arbor, MI-based startup that recently entered the final stage of clinical trials for its multicell therapy for patients with critical limb isschemia. Mayleben has a lots of experience developing life sciences startups. Before joining Aastrom, he served as chief operating officer of Esperion Therapeutics, which raised more than $200 million in capital under his direction before being acquired by Pfizer in 2003.

Mayleben says he has gotten to know the folks at Zell Lurie by serving as both a formal and informal advisor to the student-managed Wolverine Venture Fund for the past decade. He likes the school’s disciplined approach to failing early. He says university entrepreneurial programs fall short when they only track the number of companies created.

“The more relevant score is how many successful businesses get launched,” Mayleben says. “The venture shaping program will increase the likelihood of success, and that’s especially true for first-time entrepreneurs.”

Faley says he and the university are thrilled that the Maylebens are funding the program, and he says they’ve already expressed that they’ll entertain the idea of providing more venture shaping grants if the program grows the way Faley hopes that it will.

“Tim is a very successful serial entrepreneur, but he’s also a very thoughtful and methodical person,” Faley says of Mayleben. “That helps us when we’re trying to move students through the program.”

The first recipients of the Mayleben Family Venture Shaping Program will be announced on February 17 during the Michigan Business Challenge finals.

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