Innovation

Interview with Erik Wold, Head of Venture, NTNU TTO: On university-based innovation success

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Following is an interview with Erik Wold, Head of Venture at NTNU Technology Transfer Office (NTNU TTO).  Erik, who holds a Siviløkonom degree from University of Nordland, is responsible for managing NTNU’s venture activities including the formation of spin-off companies.  After graduating with his business degree and a short stint as accountant in Deloitte, he joined NTNU Entrepreneurship Center in 2001, and has since worked with innovation and entrepreneurship in the NTNU system, focusing on high-tech start-ups.  Erik sits on a number of boards, of NTNU TTO portfolio companies as well as of various professional associations.

NTNU TTO’s purpose is to contribute to the commercialization of research results from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the Central Norway Regional Health Authority (HMN) and the Sør-Trøndelag University College (HiST).  They define success relative to two organizational objectives, the monetization of such results and ideas, and the creation of new products and services with significant societal value.  For more information about NTNU TTO, see http://tto.ntnu.no/en/about-us.

In the interview, Erik reflected on the issues of the performance of the Norwegian innovation system, and of how technology-SMEs can improve the odds of succeeding in the market place through early focus on sales and business development.  The following is an edited transcript of our conversation (translated from Norwegian).

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CI: Could you describe the way you generally work with professors and other research scientist at NTNU?  Do they come to you, or do you go to them?  How do you add value?

Erik: Some come to us, sometimes we go to them.  In general, we tend to engage in systematic dialogues with various forms of SFIs (Senter for Forskningsdrevet Innovasjon), SFFs (Senter for Fremragende Forskning), and FMEs (Forskningssenter for Miljøvennlig Energi).  On the other hand, one of the most successful spin-offs in which we have been involved, Dynamic Rock Support, sprung out of a research group that had little strategic focus and was essentially driven by one person, Professor Charlie C. Li at Department of Geology and Mineral Resources Engineering.

Regarding value add, soft money and early-phase money are often key enablers for transforming a technical invention into a commercial innovation, especially as it could be argued that Norway has less developed business angels and seed money sectors.  We have historically had good access to and relationship with various soft money mechanisms, and Norwegian seed and venture funds.  In addition, we have a strong group of IP / patent specialists, and staff that can guide a founder or professor through the challenges of founding a new company in areas like strategy, business model and business development.

CI: How does NTNU TTO work with other financing sources, in the form of for example Innovasjon Norge, Research Council of Norway, seed funds, and venture funds?

Erik: We tend to work closely with Research Council of Norway (RCN), especially on the FORNY program, and with NTNU Discovery, which is a proof-of-concept fund targeting the commercialization of R&D ideas from NTNU and HMN, and which is financed by NTNU, HMN, Sparebank1 SMN, Sør-Trøndelag Fylkeskommune, and Nord-Trøndelag Fylkeskommune .  Of course we also work with various seed funds and venture funds and have besides a significant shareholding in Norsk Innovasjonskapital III (NIK, managed by TeleVenture Management).  Historically, we have helped around 60 portfolio companies secure around NOK 700m in external funding, out of which around 75% from the private sector.

CI: You are sitting on a number of boards of technology companies.  In what ways can a good board generate value?  What is a good board composition?

Erik: A good board is about board composition, board member complementarity, and what each board member can bring to the table in terms of for example industry background, leads, and professional network.  In a typical start-up, we generally try to compose a board with the founder(s), 1-2 technical experts, 1 NTNU TTO representative, and one external board member.  Once external funding has been secured, a representative of such funding source will generally take the role as chairman.

CI: How do you rank the performance of Trondheim as innovation cluster?  Will the award of this year’s Nobel Prize in medical research to May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser materially change the way that Trondheim is assessed as an innovation cluster by external parties?

Erik: In Norway, I guess we rank after Oslo, due to their strong performance in IT and life sciences, and on par with Stavanger, which is strong in oil and gas.  Trondheim was historically the clear #1 innovation cluster in Norway, and we definitely endeavor to climb back to this position.  I expect that the Nobel Prize will increase the attractiveness of Trondheim for world-class scientific talent, both through university rankings and through more indirect mechanisms, and thereby increase the strength of the underlying basis for the innovation cluster in Trondheim.

CI: How does the Norwegian innovation system compare with other innovation clusters in other parts of the world?  Is there a specific Norwegian innovation model with particular qualities?   

Erik: Let us use the oil and gas cluster in Norway, and Silicon Valley as examples.  I believe the Norwegian oil and gas cluster has produced world-leading technology companies because of the implicit assumption in that industry that R&D and technology could be shared across the value chain and across organizational boundaries.  What Silicon Valley has, and which the Norwegian oil and gas cluster to some extent lacks, is of course a complete ecosystem of investors (including business angles and sector-specific VCs), suppliers, customers, and world-class universities.

CI: Is NTNU TTO able to capture the value of its patent portfolio?  How many patents do we talk about every year? What kind of companies buy or license these patents?

Erik: We are involved in around 15 priority patent applications per year.  These patents are either licensed to larger companies or become basis for a start-up, in which case the patent generally becomes the property of the spin-off.  Finding a good model for the licensing of a patent portfolio is a non-trivial task for which we are really not set up, and we are currently experimenting on a specific case with engaging with a broker to test out a heavily incentivized third-party model.

CI: What is the success rate of NTNU TTO’s portfolio companies?  Do you see success rate primarily as the outcome of the quality of the underlying idea or something that is within the control of the company’s management’s?

Erik:  We are involved in 5-10 new spin-off companies every year.  We are really early phase, and do not measure success rate for companies from which we have exited, though we have our share of zombie companies, liquidations, and bankruptcies.  As of today we have realized about NOK 50m from exits and licenses.

What we observe is that i) we are generally able to transform solid technical innovations into successful companies, and ii) great management teams can transform less mature technical concepts into successful companies.  Dynamic Rock Support and Aptomar are examples of the two situations.

CI: What are the three most typical reasons for spin-off failure?  Could such failures be avoided?

Erik: We typically observe one key reason for spin-off failure: lack of speed and momentum when developing the company.  The lack of speed and momentum has a number of implications, including running out of cash, due to lack of investment; closing of the window of opportunity in the market, due to new entrants pursuing same opportunity; and not understanding the real customer needs, due to not trying to develop the technology and sell the stuff to real customers.  Related to the issue of lack of speed and momentum is also the issue of lack of focus: Some founders simply go out too broadly.

A notable example of after-the-fact failure was Chapdrive, which endeavored to commercialize a patented hydraulic drivetrain solution for wind turbines that should reduce top-weight, eliminate the mechanical gearbox and reduce cost of energy, and in which millions over the years were invested.  It was liquidated in 2013. Not everything goes as we hope for!

CI: Regarding sales, I guess we to some extent talk about individuals and individual performance.  What is the typical profile of individuals with exceptional sales success rates?  Professor or dedicated sales staff?  Born or bred?

Erik: In a typical start-up, it is all about a passionate and visionary CEO or founder with a will to succeed and a solid understanding of the needs in the market.  She or he does not have to come from the industry, as long as she or he has the ability to continuously engage with customers in a dialogue about their business needs, which are not to be understood as compliance with rules and regulations.  Of course, the professor is also important, to establish credibility around a specific technical idea, and sooner or later a successful start-up will need dedicated sales staff, but, again, key success factor is a passionate and visionary CEO.  Regarding born or bred, definitely born, though many or most individuals in customer-facing roles may find some kind of sales training useful.

CI: Could you describe a couple of success stories for which the services of NTNU TTO contributed significantly to their successes, and in which you have been personally involved?

Erik: A couple of success stories come to mind: Dynamic Rock Support, with its D-Bolt concept, was something I am personally proud of.  It was in 2013 sold to Normet, a Finnish technology leader in underground mining and technology for tunneling environments.  Another one is Aptomar, which does tactical real-time safety solution for navigation aid, vessel safety and security, environmental monitoring, and SAR.  It is now a multi-million NOK company with worldwide presence.   A third one is Kahoot!, provider of Kahoot!, a classroom response system which creates an engaging learning space through a game-based digital pedagogy.   It now has around 10 million unique users, but the business challenge there is to find a way of monetizing the underlying idea.

CI: How do you see NTNU TTO’s role change over the next ten years, and how could such change increase its ability to promote the monetization of scientific research from NTNU and the creation of new products and services?

Erik: NTNU TTO is just one of multiple TTOs in Norway, which were all formed for 10-12 years ago.  We generally see the sector in Norway today as professionalized and mature compared with similar institutions in Europe and in the US.  What I believe will change, and which will change our job, is the way the university sector in the future will be measured and incentivized regarding innovation and company creation, in addition to production of students and publications.  This change of KPIs and incentivization will happen at the institutional level as well as at the level of individual professors and scientist.

Discussion

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