Purdue Foundry Helps University-Bred Startups Find Path to Market
Greg Deason, the Purdue Foundry’s senior vice president and director of innovation and entrepreneurship, has been in the technology transfer business a long time.
Before coming to the Foundry, which is the entity tasked with ushering startups spun out of the university’s research and inventions to market, Deason spent 20 years building Purdue’s five research parks across Indiana—transforming them, he says, from a network of technology incubators to engines for the state’s economic growth initiatives.
According to the university, the research park network has helped launch more than 260 companies that employ about 4,500 people, generating an annual economic impact of $1.3 billion to the state of Indiana. When Mitch Daniels took over as Purdue’s president in 2013, he brought with him a mission to step up the university’s entrepreneurial efforts.
Daniels directed the team at the research parks to collaborate with those undertaking the university’s wider commercialization efforts, and out of that, the Purdue Foundry was born. It opened at the end of 2013.
“We asked ourselves, if we want to get radically better at turning out startups, how do we do it?” Deason recalls. “At that point, we did about eight per year, and we wanted to double or triple that number.”
To that end, the Purdue Foundry helps students, faculty, and staff get their startups into the marketplace through mentorship, funding, acceleration services, education, and other resources.
There are a number of programs and collaborations the Foundry oversees, including the Elevate Purdue Foundry Fund, which provides financial support for entrepreneurs-in-residence and startup seed capital; FoundryX, which connects campus entrepreneurs to industry players; WomenIN, which offers resources and a network of more than 300 people dedicated to propelling women entrepreneurs; and Purdue Ventures, the umbrella organization that manages the university’s various startup investment funds. The Foundry also hosts a number of regular meetups for its entrepreneurs and mentors.
Deason says the first step to revamping the technology transfer process was to centrally locate the Foundry on campus instead of at one of the other research park locations around the state.
“It wasn’t just a symbolic move—we wanted to be closer to our innovators,” he says. “We engage with people thinking about big ideas, and we wanted to provide consolidation of entrepreneurial resources to evaluate those ideas and move forward. At the research parks, we were meeting growth needs. Now, we’re teasing startups out of those big ideas around campus.”
But big ideas aren’t the only thing the Foundry cultivates. Before it sends its entrepreneurs out to pitch to investors, it first helps them with the practical matter of finding paying customers.
“Innovation is incomplete without impact,” Deason says. “First, we have [startup founders] articulate why the world should care about their idea. Then, we figure out if the world truly is interested. We help them articulate the value proposition and the business model.”
However, Deason says transforming an idea into a business isn’t the only possible path. “The point is to make an informed decision about going forward,” he explains. “It might be they don’t go the startup route, but still move forward. Failure is ok, too, because it’s better to invest 10 weeks than lots of money and a couple years of your life.”
During the first year of the Purdue Foundry’s existence, Deason says it went from producing an average of eight startups to 24. “That vaulted us to be top in the nation after the University of California and the University of Texas,” he says. (Startups are counted by the year in which they license a technology from the university.)
Last year, the Foundry officially engaged with 27 startups. Deason says its first two cohorts, a total of 49 companies (from the 2013 and 2014 school years), have raised about $100 million in investment capital and created more than 100 jobs. Many of the companies nurtured at the Foundry have since moved out into the university’s network of research parks.
The Purdue Foundry also works with different schools around campus to develop materials and curricula for entrepreneurial courses and applied learning opportunities. Some of the technological areas in which Purdue excels, Deason notes, are life sciences, medical devices, computer science, diagnostics, biomedical and mechanical engineering, and agtech. Forty percent of Purdue startups come out of the College of Engineering, he adds.
When he contemplates the future, Deason says he’d like to bring more liberal arts students, as well as those from parts of the university not traditionally associated with entrepreneurship, into the Foundry’s fold. He’d also like to tackle the challenge of identifying and grooming managerial talent. He hopes serial entrepreneurs looking for a new role or later-stage professionals planning to leave their industry will consider applying their talents to managing a university-bred startup.
“We’ll be looking for ways to vault our companies from starting to get traction to the next level of success,” Deason says.