Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. Coming to you today from the Spur on the campus of the University of Houston and my guest is Ken Jones, the Director of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship; Ken, welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show.
Ken: It’s so great to be here.
Russ: You bet. Every time I’ve been out here I’ve been impressed. It’s been a while now though and it certainly feels like you’ve upped the game out here, tell us what’s going on with the Wolff Center.
Ken: I would say that we’ve upped the game appreciably. What we’ve added now, in fact where we’re sitting is out latest and greatest and that is the – what we’re calling the Spur – when someone gives us enough money we’ll call it whatever they want to call it.
Ken: But it spurs innovation and its near spur 5 and it’s our business incubator.
Ken: And we have about 5500 square feet up here but we really have the use of the whole building and we are creating an ecosystem for all the businesses associated through the university of Houston that are really emanating out of our intellectual property portfolio as well as some that are not but that we could I think better ensure the success or quick failure of these startups.
Russ: Okay, so these are way beyond just what comes out of the Wolff Center then?
Ken: Oh gosh yes.
Ken: The good news is that we handle almost eight pieces of intellectual property a year from the University in the Wolff Center, but there are far more than that that come out and what we want to do is provide I think a great resource so that we can optimize people’s success.
Russ: Okay. So the Wolff Center to me has always not been one of these pretend business programs.
Ken: Not at all.
Russ: Like a lot of the university ones that I’ve been to, so they’ve always been real businesses but where you really are kind of taken on real initiatives is through this intellectual property from the University of Houston. What motivated that?
Ken: Well, I’ve been doing this a long time and in many cases when we used to offer out program, some students would come into our program with a great interest in being an entrepreneur, but without really an idea.
Ken: And so they would be forced to come up with an idea that ends up putting a square peg down a round hole and that didn’t really work. And so what we now do is we really enforce that everyone in the program gets on a team that works with a piece of intellectual property. Should it go full force and they want to stay with it we then through the school give them a license – an exclusive license – to move that technology further. So for those that want to do that they can and for those that eventually want to work on their own plan on something that we think is pretty tenable they can now do that.
Ken: And we started that a little over 2 years ago and it’s gone just great guns; it’s been fantastic and I’m talking some technologies that’ll knock your socks off.
Russ: Well I got exposed to a few of them and my thought would be how do you select who gets what intellectual property within your program?
Ken: That’s a real bone of contention. In fact, what we do is we try to make as even a team as we can without any bias and then similar to like little league drafts they end up drawing a number out of a hat and they get first, second, third, fourth all the way up to eighth round draft choice. And so they pick – and we try to as best we can marry the levels of interest with the technology that’s available.
Russ: Okay, okay, well tell us a couple of them that are already attracting attention and maybe more than attention.
Ken: Well let’s see, from last year we have one where their CEO won a Forbes 30 under 30 this past year. He just got finished making a presentation in Vienna, Austria and that’s a company called REEcycle – R – E – E cycle – and that’s Rare Earth Element Recycling.
Russ: You introduced them to us and we’ve interviewed them.
Ken: And you’ve interviewed them, that was one. We’ve got another one called Wave; Wave is using graphene based filtering to make almost any water potable. And so we’re working both commercially, for example frack water filtering, down to city water systems or point of use applications like making a Britta filter that much more efficient and that’s been very exciting. This year we’ve got some just great technologies that we’re working on. We’ve had a new breakthrough technology to turn your iPhone into a microscope and with different levels of refraction; it’s really quite interesting in potential. A lot of things in the oil patch, oil refining, catalyst expansion, a lot of nano. So there’s been some very, very exciting technologies come about. We’ve got a new contact lens solution that’ll allow wearers – a totally different, patented product – that will allow not only longer storage but also a lot greater, we think, comfort level for contact lens wearers. So these kids get exposed across the board and they get a lot of pressure on them to put a business around that intellectual property and it’s just a magnificent educational experience.
Russ: My goodness Ken, it sounds like it’s going to start attracting more people than you can handle to your program.
Ken: You bet. You get – our application levels have increased probably four or five-fold and it’s very, very difficult to get in now and they’ve got to really jump through a lot of hoops.
Russ: Well I remember 2, 3, 4, 5 years ago I kept being impressed by the way the program kept getting ranked first and second and third in the nation by Princeton Review. Now I don’t know if that matters anymore; I mean do you still enter those contests?
Ken: Well we do and I tell you, I’m a real big fan of business plan competitions. One, they’ve become very, very popular and the prize money is enormous.
Ken: And so the best, cheapest money is where they don’t take equity and you don’t have to pay it back.
Ken: So we’ve won almost $500,000.00 with that.
Russ: Oh wow.
Ken: We’re even working right now, this summer, we’re going to put on our own business plan competition here at the university; a worldwide energy competition.
Russ: Oh wow.
Ken: Not just clean tech, traditional energy.
Russ: Real energy.
Ken: Real energy; upstream, downstream, midstream, both clean tech, software and so we’ll have that plan put together by the summer with I hope seven figure prize money.
Russ: Wow, we might like to cover that with The EnergyMakers Show too.
Ken: You’ll definitely want to take a look at that, it’s going to be really exciting.
Russ: All right, so it’s almost boggling the seriousness of the program. I mean does the whole administration here – does Renu enjoy this?
Ken: Oh, this is really coming from Dr. Khator and her vision and we work hand in hand with the Department of Research, and they’re so talented there. And so we take a look at the various pieces of intellectual property, we interview the inventors – because they’ve got to be willing to try to work with us. We’ve really had to gain everybody’s trust so that we can get things done and so many times these inventors are scientists that really know nothing about business, and so that combination really has the potential to generate great license revenue for the school but it also puts people in business, generates jobs, provides financing; I’m working on a fund right now that can go ahead and partake in the growth of all of these in a collective basis. So the ecosystem’s really starting to get kind of closed out, it’s very nice.
Russ: That’s impressive. I’m wondering though if – and I say though because I used to love the way that you talked about starting off each year at the Wolff Center and that was you get all the perspective entrepreneurs in the room and you say okay, let’s figure out right now how much you need to live; do you still do that?
Ken: Yep, and we’ve grown from when I first started doing that around 42,000, I think last year was around 117,000.
Russ: Okay, it’s gone way up. And that doesn’t dissuade them whatsoever?
Ken: No, but what it does is it makes them realize they better get involved in a business that has not only good margins but a well-defined market.
Ken: And the ability to scale.
Russ: Right, absolutely. Okay so before I let you go you mentioned this room before you took off and said that almost anybody can come and participate; say somebody’s interested, how do they get in touch with the program?
Ken: They would contact right now the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship and then we vet them, it’s very advantaged, and there’s really no endgame, meaning that there’s not a lease end; these are month to month relationships where we try to do everything we really can to foster their growth. And we certainly have room at the moment, we’ve just opened this place and I’ll put in on par with any place in the country – it’s quite nice.
Russ: Well it is nice, it really is. So Ken I really appreciate you sharing your perspective once again with us.
Ken: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
Russ: you bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Ken Jones, the Director of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship here at the University of Houston. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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