Looking to Spur Startups, UW’s Patent Office Partners with Gener8tor
gBETA, a free, six-week accelerator for early-stage companies affiliated with colleges and universities in Wisconsin, now has a second powerful backer.
On Monday Gener8tor, the Wisconsin startup accelerator that launched gBETA earlier this year, announced a partnership with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which manages intellectual property for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. American Family Insurance had previously been gBETA’s lone sponsor.
Gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues declined to share financial terms of the agreement.
The announcement helps clarify gBETA’s programming schedule. Its first cohort graduated in August and a second class, also working from Madison, is currently enrolled. But it was not known how frequently—or even whether—gBETA would occur after that. Now Gener8tor’s plan is to enroll three five-company classes annually. The goal is for five of the 15 startups selected each year to have technology licensed by WARF, says Carrie Thome, director of investments at the foundation.
Thome says for the past few years, staff and trustees at WARF had brainstormed ways to increase the number of startups that spring from UW-Madison research. Some suggested WARF build a support network for early-stage companies internally. But ultimately the most sensible option was to collaborate with Gener8tor, which already had infrastructure and a national reputation. In 2014, the Seed Accelerator Rankings Project ranked Gener8tor the 14th-best U.S. accelerator. (Disclosure: Gener8tor is a supporter of Xconomy in Wisconsin, but our coverage is determined independently by our editors.)
“Gener8tor is good at teaching companies how to raise money and if you can’t raise money, you’re never going to get anywhere,” Thome says. “It’s about facilitating the flow of capital and that’s why it made sense [to partner].”
Startups picked for gBETA receive access to experts and tools that can help founders get their ventures off the ground. Gener8tor provides mentorship, coaching, legal advice, use of specialized labs or machinery, and meetings with lawyers and investors. Unlike companies in the accelerator’s core 12-week program, gBETA participants do not trade an equity stake for up-front cash. This has been the case with gBETA from the beginning, and will not change with WARF entering the picture.
While UW-Madison is known as a research powerhouse, it has a mixed record of starting companies based on its innovations and scientific breakthroughs. According to National Science Foundation data, the school ranked fourth nationally in R&D expenditures in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. And it was 16th in a global ranking of universities producing the most venture capital-backed entrepreneurs compiled by PitchBook, a firm that monitors investment trends. But positive indicators like these around startups at UW-Madison seem to be leveled out by negative sentiment. At a conference on entrepreneurship in the area earlier this year, one session featured panelists who suggested the university could do more to help students and faculty commercialize research.
WARF, which has a $2.6 billion endowment, is the country’s oldest academic tech transfer organization. During its 90-year existence, the foundation has returned more than $1 billion to UW-Madison, according to WARF’s website. It made headlines nationally last month after Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) was ordered to pay WARF $234 million for infringing one of its patents.
Gener8tor’s Kirgues, who helped start the accelerator in 2012, says about one-third of its 38 portfolio companies hold a patent. He says the goal of teaming up with WARF is to “make the borders more porous” between UW-Madison, technology developed there, and budding entrepreneurs in the university community.
“gBETA is designed for the type of startup you’d find on campus,” he says. “That makes affiliates of the university particularly appealing partners for programs like this.”