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Special Report
University Entrepreneurship

 March 2000

 

 

It Could Be Contagious...

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Perhaps Virginia Tech's Fiber & Electro-Optics Research Center (FEORC) is an example of contagious entrepreneurship. Since its establishment in 1985, 17 companies have spun off from the research group - the largest number of any single group in the university.

The very first company, Fiber Techniques, was started by a staff member to install optical fiber networks in business parks. The next, a group effort called Fiber Micro Optical Devices, was started by students who had industrial experience before starting graduate school.

The largest, and as of now the most successful spin-off, Fiber & Sensor Technologies, was also begun as a group effort, involving students, staff members, and faculty members. The firm recently changed its name to Luna Innovations and is active in the areas of advanced instrumentation and materials technologies. Luna's products range from highly sensitive biosensors for discovering new pharmaceuticals, to novel materials. The firm has been selected as one of Virginia's fastest growing private high technology companies, and has made it to the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies.

More recently, companies have been formed by students and alumni - some who worked for F&S - and were exposed to the thrills and challenges of start-up firms.

One of the most recent start-ups, ACT Microdevices, Inc., is a micromachining technology company that was established in 1996 by four students who met in the FEORC laboratories. The firm was located near the university to allow two of the partners to complete their graduate education. ACT currently offers services and products to Fortune 500 companies in volume silicon micromachining, thin film coatings and metallization, semiconductor wafer processing, waveguide, and fiber alignment, and MEMS research and development.

According to FEORC director Rick Claus, the spin-off firms have been started for many reasons: desperation, boredom, anger, scientific interest, the desire to earn big money, even just wanting a job. "We haven't encouraged this," he said. "All of these companies were serendipitous. We had people in FEORC with certain personalities and many different motives.

"I don't know why we've had so many start-ups," he continued. "I do not think it is because we are geniuses. There is nothing special in the water. Our technical area is not even that hot," he said.

One possibility he offered is the way in which students at Virginia Tech learn the field. "We don't have a whole lot of courses in optics in electrical engineering," he said. "What that has meant is that we teach optics to our students at night or on Sunday afternoons. We have a meeting with the students and wind up lecturing. Sometimes the post docs snicker, but the undergraduate and grad students soak it up. Perhaps since we as a department and college were not able to spoon-feed the students, they had to learn it themselves. They learned it by working with optics in our laboratories. This gave them self confidence."

Effect of Start-ups on Students

Enough FEORC students have been involved in start-ups as founders or employees, that some patterns have become noticeable. "I think it makes them look at their degrees in a different way," Claus said. "The students working for companies are not graduate research assistants. They are paying to go to class and want to get something out of each meeting. They can get frustrated that we do not teach what they want to know... They have a higher sense of immediacy that we do not see in other students."

Students at start-up firms also tend to take longer obtaining their degree, he said. "There is a limit to how many classes they can take; how much they can stuff into their lives and still be effective in their jobs."

Faculty Involvement

About half of FEORC's spin-offs have involved faculty members, and during the Center's 15 years, the extent of faculty involvement has changed along with the university's and state's changing attitudes toward start-up firms.

Prior to about a decade ago, faculty members, as state employees, were discouraged from owning more than 3 percent of a company, Claus said. During that time, when faculty members were involved in start-up firms, it was more often in larger groups, where the shares were minimal.

In 1985, however, when FEORC was founded by the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), "we were told that one of our jobs as a Technology Development Center was to create new companies," Claus said. "So, we were being told by the state community to start companies."

In 1990, Virginia clarified the conflict of interest law. "To us as state employees, that change in the law looked like a green flag signal - the state was saying, 'look, we are removing this barrier.' Between the CIT and the law, we felt we were being pushed into entrepreneurship," he said.

"Now the $64,000 question is, how do we optimize the involvement of faculty members in companies and at the same time optimize their involvement in the university system? We as faculty are supposed to be evaluated on teaching, research, and extension. You can only put entrepreneurship into one category and you need to do your work to cover the other areas. You cannot replace all three. That's where the conflict comes from."

 

The Bradley Department

of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Virginia Tech


Last Updated, March 30, 2000
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