Headshot of Bryn Rees

Bryn Rees is the associate vice chancellor for research and innovation, and managing director of Venture Partners at CU Boulder — one of two tech transfer offices in the University of Colorado system.

He’s been at the university since 2009 — apart from a few weeks in 2015 when he quit because he was done with transactional tech transfer. But then the opportunity came to fundamentally rebuild how commercialisation was done at CU, which is what he’s been doing since.

Today, CU Boulder has everything you’d expect from a tech transfer office that produces more than 20 spinouts a year: from a startup-friendly licence to a dedicated investment affiliate, the Buff Venture Fund.

It’s been a long and fascinating road to arrive at this stage (though the university is famous for having created the pharmaceutical giant Amgen a few decades ago, and the faculty co-founder is still launching spinouts today) and Bryn is going to tell us all about that journey.

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Transcript

Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.

Bryn, welcome.

Thank you so much, Thierry, really a pleasure to be joining you. Love the podcast and looking forward to talking.

Same! To start with, something to set the scene for our listeners. Can you give me an overview of Venture Partners with some headline figures, if you have those?

Absolutely. Maybe I’ll say a little about the university as well. So CU Boulder is an AAU, so American Association of Universities member. We’ve got about 35,000 students, $650m in research funding annually, and a broad range of areas of research and innovation. I know you have some international listeners, and so for them, Boulder is a very small town, about 100,000 people in the Rocky Mountains, and it’s known for its startup community and proximity to a lot of federal and national research labs.

So in terms of Venture Partners, we are the commercialisation arm of the University of Colorado Boulder, and our mission is to translate research into high-growth commercial ventures and partnerships. So because we focus as much on startup creation and growth and development as we do on traditional tech transfer, a lot of our high-level metrics reflect that as well. So we have an annual output of about 20 startups, using the AUTM definition of what a startup is, but we run quite a lot more startups and early startup teams through our startup development programmes, maybe more like 40 or 50 teams and companies every year. And some of those never make it, right, and some of them are just not quite startups yet, so that’s why we’ve got a larger number of folks running through our programs.

Our companies at the entire portfolio level have raised $2.5bn in venture capital over the last three years, and we’ve had some high-profile exits as well over the last several years, again, into the billions of dollars.

So we also focus on our economic impact in the state and nationally. I’ve done an analysis of that that showed a $5.2bn economic impact in Colorado and $8bn economic impact in the U.S. So those are some of our non-traditional metrics. And if we think about more traditional tech transfer metrics, we see about 150 inventions disclosed a year off of our campus and about 90 licence and option deals a year. Our team is about 20 folks plus another five or so entrepreneurs-in-residence.

Amazing. I’m sure most people will know that University of Colorado is a system. You’ve got four campuses, if I remember this right?

That’s correct.

Where does Venture Partners fit in? Are you responsible for all of them, for a couple of them?

Yes, for several. So there are four campuses in the system. CU Boulder is the main campus. We have also a large medical campus, the Anschutz Medical Campus. We have two smaller campuses, one in Colorado Springs and one in downtown Denver. And Venture Partners is responsible for Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs campuses. And Anschutz has its own dedicated unit called CU Innovations that is our sister office for that campus.

The life science specialists.

That’s right.

Has it always had a split in tech transfer offices or was there a point when it was a centralised offering?

That’s right. It was, yeah. So for actually the bulk of the history of commercialisation and tech transfer at CU, it was a system centralised office. And that was dissolved in 2015 and let’s say decentralised to the control of the campuses. So I actually joined the university while it was still a system office and got to live through that process of decentralisation.

I will ask you some more about that experience in a bit.

Sure.

I want to look at some of the programs you offer first, though. Perhaps starting with the Licensing with EASE programme. Can you tell me a little bit about this?

Yeah. So obviously for all of our programmes, we definitely try to take an entrepreneurial approach and come up with programmes that are meeting a particular need that may be common to other universities or may be unique to our ecosystem. So in this case, the challenge or the problem was the perception and perhaps the reality of the university and how easy it was and how long it took to get a licence for our startup companies. And so we had a very close look at that.

We spoke broadly across the community and looked at how long was it taking for a startup to get a licence and what were our terms versus other universities. And I think at the end of the day, we felt comfortable that both the process and the result were not bad at the University of Colorado. However, that perception is also very important. So we wanted to address the perception and we also wanted to see if we could go above and beyond where we already were.

So we wanted to create a licensing process for our startup companies that was very fast, very easy, and very… not only fair for the startup, but let’s say it’s startup friendly. At the larger level, I think coming back to that perception issue, I remember speaking with Phil Weiser, who at the time was the dean of our law school and has now gone on to become the attorney general for the state of Colorado. He was very engaged in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. And I said, what’s really behind that perception? And he said that, you know, in some corners of the startup community, the university was being seen as more of like a toll to pass through rather than a value add.

So we wanted to, in the case of Licensing with EASE, but in all our programmes, how can we shift that to not only being perceived, but really truly acting as a value add to these generation of new ventures, whether those are partnerships or new companies. And so this was a great opportunity to do that. So what we did was speak with an array of entrepreneurs, of investors, law firms who represented our startup companies and came up with a standardised pre-negotiated licence. So this follows in the footsteps of other universities who’ve done similar things. First one that I’m aware of was UNC, University of North Carolina, and their express licence. So what we wanted to do though was have something that was validated by third parties, right. So we didn’t want to just say, the university says this is a great fair deal. Here you go. We wanted to be sure that other independent parties validated it. So that was a critical step.

The other thing we really wanted to do was give the startup founders some autonomy and some choice. So again, there wasn’t just a one-size-fits-all, but several choices for them to choose terms that could be anything from really heavily weighted towards equity to heavily weighted in the other direction and having no equity and more of the consideration coming from royalties and other fees.

So I think that that is something that is always important for us to think about. We’ve got these highly independent, maybe even maverick types who want to start a company and we love that. That’s the profile we’re looking for. And that doesn’t necessarily jive well with a top down, here’s your licence. So the choice was the critical thing. It also helped us to get rid of some of the conflict that was involved. If we have founders that may be students or faculty at the university and they’re on the other side of the negotiation table, number one, our policies restrict their ability to represent their company in that type of a negotiation. And number two, these are some of our most important partners, right? And maintaining a really positive and long-term relationship with them is critical. A single licence is not as important as the lifelong relationship that we have with these people. So we’re really happy with the solution and implementing Licensing with EASE. EASE is an acronym, by the way, for express agreement for startup entrepreneurs.

Has it had a measurable impact on the number of companies that you’ve created? Has the perception successfully changed?

Certainly we’ve gotten a lot of excellent feedback. So big check mark beside evolving that perception and our role within the ecosystem. A lot of great support from entrepreneurs, from investors, folks who understand the work that went into it and the outcome as well. In terms of effect on startup numbers, I’ll say this. I don’t want to mistake correlation for causation, but right when we implemented this, our startup numbers did increase, but I’ll definitely would want to provide the additional context that we were doing many changes around that time to try and make creating a startup company more favourable at the university and better resourced. So I would say that the Licensing with EASE programme was one aspect of many that helped to boost our startups. So around the time we implemented it, maybe we were doing five or six startup companies a year and growing to more like 20, but I don’t want to put it all on Licensing with EASE.

I don’t think that there’s that many people who are about to do a startup company that say I’m not going to do it purely because of the licensing arrangement, but I think it’s one important part of a more holistic approach.

Yeah, that makes perfect sense. You also, like a lot of other universities, you’ve run mentorship and EIR programmes. Can you tell me a little about your approach to those as well?

Sure. Yeah. And maybe first I’ll say what those mean for us, because I think they can mean different things at different institutions and have different naming. So a mentor for us is somebody who’s volunteering their time and may have a lighter engagement. They may help with pitch coaching. They may help with meeting with inventors at a very early stage to help look at potential market applications, or they may come in with a very specific ask mapping out a regulatory strategy or something.

But for us, the entrepreneur-in-residence position or EIR is a paid role, which was something we evolved over the years. And that’s where somebody is much more engaged with us, spends more of their time, perhaps even 20 hours a week. And they’re going to be working on probably a smaller subset of companies who are farther along. So people who have the same level of commitment as they do.

I think that sometimes the challenge with mentors is that we need to be sure that the founders or the inventors on the other side are just as committed. And so if we bring in somebody as an EIR, we want to be sure that they’re working on our highest potential cases.

You have a range of other support and funding opportunities for startups. You have the Lab Venture Challenge, you have the Ascent Deep Tech Accelerator, the Embark Deep Tech Startups Creator. Can you tell me a little bit about these programmes and how they work together, if they work together?

Yeah, they do. And they work with mentorship as well. So just talking about the mentors, we have mentors embedded in all of these programmes. But very briefly, I’ll go over those three programmes and then maybe say a little more about one in detail. The Lab Venture Challenge is a gap fund, right? So these are for folks who have high potential innovation, high potential for commercialisation, and are not quite ready to go out for private investment yet.

The Ascent Deep Tech Accelerator is for aspiring startup founders who may find that even though we’ve got fantastic startup accelerators here in Boulder, they’re really designed for software-type companies. So B2B SaaS, enterprise software. And if you’ve got a startup company where you’re looking at 10 years until exit, or maybe even 10 years until revenue, right, that just doesn’t fit in an eight-week accelerator programme where they’re going from idea to revenue in those eight weeks. So we created our own accelerator to work with that different audience.

The Embark Deep Tech Startup Creator is a new programme, and that’s where we take innovations and form a new company ourselves in partnership with our entrepreneurs in the community. So these are not founded by the academic inventors, but rather as a collaboration between us and the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

So that’s the high level, but those three and all of our programmes really are always hitting on three themes, and that’s mindset, so helping our academics expand from the research mindset into the entrepreneurial mindset, mentorship as we’ve talked about, and then money.

We got those three Ms from Babson College, and they integrate that into their entrepreneurial programmes, and we think it is a great fit for us.

But I’ll say a little more about Embark because that’s new for us, and I think it’s relatively new in the world of university commercialisation. And so we’re not waiting for and relying on the inventors to create a company. We are doing our own diligence to find the best startup opportunities in a larger IP portfolio, and then we are selecting the executive team to lead that and providing the funding to help support their initial salary and some of their early technology development, and doing that all in a competitive process.

And that’s sort of a capstone project or programme for us. It’s not something we could have done five or six years ago because we didn’t have the network of entrepreneurs who have been engaging with us from which to draw. And so it’s something that we’re ready to do now. We’ve got the resources and the contacts to do it, and it’s creating what we like to call a new kind of startup.

We’re interested in doing more startups and doing high quality startups, but also we want to build startups that if it wasn’t for our team at Venture Partners, they simply wouldn’t exist. And that’s coming back to trying to become a very active value adding part of the ecosystem.

That’s actually really fascinating. I’ll have to keep a closer eye on that. I hadn’t realszed that it was a fairly new program as well, actually. That’s really cool. Another one that I noticed that I wanted to ask you about was the Destination Startup programme. Can you tell me about this?

Sure. And this is like everything, contextual. We’re located in Colorado, a place where there’s a growing number of venture capital funds and a strong history of software focused venture capital funds. But where for us, our portfolio startups, 99% of the capital that they raised is coming from outside of Colorado. So in identifying that challenge, we know that we need to build relationships with investors that in the US are located primarily on the two coasts.

And so how can we attract them and build those partnerships? One strategy is to go to them and we have programmes to do that, but the other is to bring them here. And so in brainstorming with my former boss, former vice chancellor for research and innovation, Terry Fiez, we quickly went from an idea of an investor showcase day, focusing on our companies to saying, well, we should really be focusing the companies, not just from our university, but some other universities as well to maximise that magnetising effect.

And then from there, why stop at Colorado? So where we are with destination startup now is a process in which we curate the top university spinouts from universities, from Montana all the way down to Arizona. So really what we’re calling the Mountain West region, we’ve got a dozen participating institutions, probably 50 or so companies apply every year. And we go through a competitive process to get down to the top 20 and then open that up to a national investor audience with the value proposition being you can come to this single event and see the best of the region rather than having to invest so much time into going institution by institution and trying to find all that deal flow.

It’s a way to lift up the whole ecosystem, to lift up the prominence of the great companies coming out of the entire region and to try and help our companies raise that capital.

That’s really intriguing. I mean, I often talk to smaller universities that might not have the pipeline to maybe show to investors, but with 20, 25 companies a year, you probably would have. So it’s really interesting to hear that you immediately went in on the regional play as well and really made something of it.

Exactly. And I think that for that type of university who maybe doesn’t have the big deal flow, it’s no problem, right? You join in a network like this and maybe you’re only doing one or two startups a year, but you don’t have to create, let’s say the rate-limiting number in order to get investor attention if you’re plugging in this way.

Yeah, I don’t think any investor is going to travel to a town for two startups.

That’s right. And of course, the other thing is we hold it in February and we’re hoping that an investor likes to ski, they come here and go skiing. And while you’re here, why not see a few startups?

Yeah. You’ve also fairly recently created the Buff Venture Fund, which is operated externally by Buff Gold Ventures. Can you tell me a bit about what motivated this and why now is the time for a venture fund?

Yeah. So this is a related challenge, right? Relatively less venture capital available in Colorado. And our hypothesis was that some of the companies here certainly had the quality and the investability and were they to be located on the coast in closer proximity to those VC firms that they’d be getting investment. So could we create a fund here in Boulder that can be some of that first money in and at the same time could also help us syndicate with those investors and bring them here so that there’d be this synergistic effect where it’s not just about the capital that goes into this venture fund, but also the capital that it could partner with and bring here.

So we created the Buff Venture Fund. It was a multi-year process to do it and we launched it at the beginning of 2022. It’s a $25m venture capital fund. It is independent from the university. It’s not operated, managed or legally part of the university. And there’s kind of a strategy behind all of those decisions.

And it invests primarily in seed and series A investment rounds, but can go beyond that as well. And I think most importantly, it only invests in CU Boulder startup companies. So in its first year, it’s made five investments and had a really nice impact on what we’re doing.

How difficult was it to convince the university that this was a good idea, even if they’re not legally involved?

There is certainly a very close partnership between the university and in particular Venture Partners and the Buff Venture Fund. And I’d say maybe the biggest challenge was convincing myself or convincing ourselves that this was the right time and the right thing to do. And if we could do that and do a really deep assessment, deep diligence, and then bring that to the university that we’d be able to get alignment there. And that was certainly the case.

So we looked very closely, firstly, at the history and deal flow at our own university. We did a retrospective model to look at if we had a venture fund and apply some investment rules, where would it have made investments and would that have justified a fund of what particular size? So that was a helpful exercise.

We also had past efforts at CU actually. So people have been talking about and actually have made an effort to raise a fund probably 15 years ago now. And at the time there, I think really the limiting thing was deal flow. I don’t think that there was the adequate pipeline of high-quality investable startup companies to warrant it. And that’s where that effort fell down was inability to attract some of the investors in the fund. So that was part of our diligence.

And then of course, the advantage of not being first, many other universities have a fund like this, and we were able to look at over a dozen types of university-affiliated or university-run venture capital funds, all the different ways that they’re set up, all the different ways that they function. And that was a great exercise because there’s a lot of ways to do this. And we wanted to make sure we had something that was a fit for us.

So when we were able to take the results of that process to the university’s leadership, they were actually incredibly supportive, which was wonderful.

Amazing. Picking up the perception theme, perhaps, has it changed the perception amongst your faculty startup founders now that there is a fund? Has that helped them? The university is putting some skin in the game, so to speak.

Yeah, I think so. I definitely do. And so there is this, it’s certainly, you know, getting that investment is not the end of the startup journey, but it’s such a major milestone. And seeing the availability of that, seeing that there’s a dedicated fund, it’s just here for you, right, university and grad student founders, this fund was made for you. That certainly helps.

And not only its presence, but its activity, right? So it’s made five investments, as I mentioned. I can think of a couple of those companies where, you know, were it not for the Buff Venture Fund, even though other investors eventually came in, our fund was really what catalysed that deal. So it was, again, another example of maybe if we don’t have this resource, maybe this company doesn’t happen.

And then in other cases, the impact of the fund has been not directly through an investment, but through making a connection. So as often happens during a VC pitch, that investor decides this is not a fit for us, but we think you’d be great with this other firm. And we’ve had examples of that too. So our community finds that even if it doesn’t result in a direct investment, going and working with the Buff Venture Fund leads to a financing through another channel.

I think you’ve mentioned around 20 companies a year. The latest AUTM set showed that you created 25 startups across the system. You created 2.06 startups, which is a fun number, per $100m of research funding, which is higher than Stanford or MIT, which I thought was quite interesting. What are the key factors for this?

Yeah, so of those 25 startups reported in the last AUTM metrics, 20 of those come through our group, Venture Partners. So we really feel like we’ve moved the needle on to use startup output, which is fantastic. It certainly does line up with this very conscious, very strategic effort to both identify what are the limitations around starting a company and in creating programmes that directly address that. So coming back to that money mindset, mentorship resources, if we think if we have multiple programmes that adequately address those, then we can grow the startup portfolio.

In every case, what we’re doing really is inspiring and supporting the development of founders, right? So that’s what we try and keep in mind. It’s not just about the technologies. It’s not about the IP. It’s about finding and cultivating the people who are going to lead these ventures. So that’s where we’re putting our effort. And I think that’s what’s behind the boost in startup companies. So at minimum, we try and reduce the barriers, make transactions easy, like Licensing with EASE.

But then we’ve got to also be sure that each step in the way from idea all the way through to investable company, that there’s program and there’s help and there’s support and there’s resources to help folks do that.

I think that we’ve got an amazing talent pool at a university of exceptional folks, but for them, a lot of time, this is totally new. And if they can have that directional support, what’s the next step, then that’s going to be a big step. So often in the first place, somebody says, yeah, I’d love to see my work out making an impact in society. And that first step is maybe going through our I-Corps programme to understand a product market fit and then Gap Fund going through the accelerator, working with the Buff Venture Fund.

So we have this continuum where, you know, for that period of a year or so, they can’t get away from us. No one’s kind of escaping into the ether. We’re saying, here’s the next programme. And of course, people, you know, starting a company is not for everybody, so people self-select out. But for anybody who’s serious, they’re never going to come up against an obstacle where they don’t have support.

Yeah, you’ve managed to plug all the different gaps. What are your hopes for the next few years then? Is there something else that… another programme you want to create or something that’s still missing?

Well, we certainly want to continue to grow out that new programme, Embark in creating that new kind of startup company. That’s something we’re spending a lot of our energy on. But also we are, and this is now a broader campus effort, even though we’re a central player in it, is creating a home for this, a physical space. So we do have startups renting space on campus now, but we’d like to have a centralised place where startups can co-locate with each other, with some of our leading translational researchers, also co-locating with some industry partners and other ecosystem partners as well in a, I know, innovation hub is a slightly overused term, but we’ll call it that for now. So that’s something that we and CU Boulder is really focused on building right now.

I mean, it might be overused, but it probably encompasses quite a lot of what it means. So it’s not a wrong term to use. How does your engagement fare in terms of equity, diversity, and inclusion? Do you track those numbers?

We do, yes. So we’ve been tracking gender and race demographics for quite a few years now. And what that helps us do is look at change, right? And I’m not sure that there’s a particular goals we have in terms of absolute values, but we do want to see if the efforts we’re making to try and improve the diversity of engagement in our programmes and our services, that… whether or not that’s working, right? And so tracking those metrics can be helpful.

And what I would say so far is that we’re really happy to see that we have an increased engagement from the BIPOC community relative to the general demographics in the university and just locally here. So that is to say a higher percentage of Black and ondigenous people of colour participating in our programs than we would find just in the surrounding area. That’s encouraging. We are still slightly below 50% in engagement from women, and that’s something we’d certainly like to improve on.

Yeah. When you say efforts that you’ve made, does that mean that there are any specific initiatives that you run to attract these people?

Sure, yeah. So some of the specific efforts include a women’s entrepreneurship series. And that’s something that we have run in the past. And we’d also like to add a little more resource and support, possibly stipends for aspiring entrepreneurs there. We’ve made a lot of efforts in our partnerships with different groups on the campus that are focused on a particular underrepresented group. So ensuring that we are properly building awareness of what we’re doing with them and addressing any challenges that they see in accessing what we do.

But I think mostly what we want to do is, in addition to having specific outreach efforts and specific programmes, like I mentioned, is to be sure that diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and accessibility are a part of everything that we do. So that includes how we’re promoting a programme, who is visible in that programme, like who’s on stage, who’s the speaker, who’s the panelists, and even how we’re making resource allocations.

So we talked about our gap fund, the Lab Venture Challenge. We have specific scoring criteria for somebody’s team, how they’re building their team. And one of the dimensions there is what is their current plans for diversifying their team. And we have great data, national data, that more diverse founding teams raise more capital and have better exits. There’s a very clear need to address there.

And same thing with the Buff Venture Fund. So that’s a critical thing. Team diversity is a critical thing for them and how they make investment decisions. And they’ve got great metrics, 100% of the investments that they’ve made include teams of diverse founders.

Wow, amazing. How does your own office fare in terms of representation?

I’d say that we are a work in progress. I think we’re very proud to have a good gender balance. Actually, over the last eight years, we’ve had more women than men on the team. So very steadily women-led team. And in terms of racial diversity, I think that that’s an area that we can really improve on and continue to improve our understanding and our efforts there.

I think that right now we don’t enjoy that same observation with our inventor and founder profile, which was above the typical demographics in the area where I would say our own team kind of is more reflective of the pretty limited diversity that we have both in our region and within the university as well. So that’s an area that Venture Partners and the entirety of CU Boulder is really focusing on and trying to ensure that we have good visibility of underrepresented folks in leadership positions and addressing some of the conditions that can lead to diminished diversity.

So the university looks at things like the ability to relocate personnel here and having good affordable housing, staff, faculty housing options, home buying assistance programnes, things like that. But I believe this is definitely an area that is high importance to the university, but one that we all acknowledge needs to improve on.

Yeah, that’s really interesting, actually. I mean, I have a feeling that it is a problem across quite a lot of tech transfer, the BIPOC representation. There is a struggle with the “supply” of those people joining the profession and that then leads to a lack of leaders at the top, which then means that there aren’t role models and it’s a challenge.

It is, yeah. It is complex and I think that we need to really take a hard look at ourselves and be willing to identify the conscious or unintentional barriers that exist and that we continually actually, again, maybe unconsciously, but reinforce to folks joining our profession.

You’ve already mentioned you’ve been at CU Boulder for a while now. You joined the university in 2009, first as a licensing officer, steadily rising through the ranks, and then your most recent promotion was in early 2022. What first piqued your interest in this profession and what has made you stay at Colorado for all these years?

I think in terms of interest, I was working in Toronto at a pharmaceutical company and was in the division that was, I think at the time, known as external scientific affairs. We were interfacing with the community and we would have a lot of startups come in and speak with us. I felt like what they were doing was much more exciting and innovative than what I was doing. I thought I would love to get into this early-stage venture creation space.

I chatted with my mentor – this is more than… about 20 years ago — about going into venture capital because I thought that would be a good way. She was like, “Well, you don’t have any experience doing that and you don’t have any money, so you might want to think about alternatives.” You could look at university tech transfer. I had an opportunity to go back to Vancouver, BC, which is where I’m from, and work at the University of British Columbia. That was my first entry into tech transfer and that was a great team to be a part of.

But in terms of Colorado and being here for quite a few years now, I think that there was a particularly poignant moment where I had been in the field for 10 years and been at CU for a little while as well, and felt like I had learned and hit the goals I wanted to. I was about done with tech transfer and I did actually quit. I think that lasted, like, it might’ve been days or weeks before I came back in a slightly different capacity, but it was going through that death and rebirth process, just letting the whole thing go and knowing that I didn’t want to continue in a particular type of tech transfer. It was very transactional, managing this patent portfolio. I had just reached the end of my professional growth there and was ready for doing something different.

But when the opportunity came to lead the organisation and to create a new strategy or a new direction, which really was needed, that was the time of decentralisation. There was some acknowledgement of a fresh start and a reorganisation. So there was this just unique moment to come in and that really shifted my perception. Like, okay, well, maybe whatever was going on before had reached its end, but here’s an opportunity to build something different. So that really got me jazzed again and I’ve been having a lot of fun ever since.

I mean, I can certainly understand that. I’ve been in this current job for nine years now, but it’s changed every couple of years or so and that’s really kind of kept me engaged. So I can see if you’re just… you’re doing something for many, many years and you eventually just reached the end of the line and it just…

Exactly.

I can totally understand that.

And I think the challenge becomes how do we keep that freshness, right? And so I kind of sometimes almost long for that 2015 time where it was like, well, I’ll build something new and if it doesn’t work, I’m ready to go. And so how can we continually be letting go of how it’s been going in the past and being receptive to where things need to go in the future? So I think internally at least I’ve had multiple decision points since then where it’s like, okay, I would like to grow us in a particular way, whether it’s creating a fund or growing out our venture development programme, growing our team. And it’s clear that we have to do that to remain on that same trajectory.

And it feels like a risk, right? Like, I think internally I’m saying if this doesn’t work, I don’t think this is for me anymore, but I’ve always maybe until now kept that private.

It’s out there now, Bryn.

Here we go. I mean, I kind of wouldn’t want it any other way.

Yeah. I think that is a sign of a good leader, though, someone who is willing to take that risk and kind of go, you know, this is where we need to go. And if it doesn’t work out, then yeah…

Perhaps on a related note, then what are some of the changes that you’ve seen over the course of your career so far?

Well, I mean, I think there are people in our profession who really have seen like all the changes, right? We’re still relatively young enough of a community that there are people who really have seen it all. I’m not one of those, but I do feel like I’ve seen a lot of change over the last 20 years. And if I were to try to boil it down to one thing, it’s that extension of our role in the value chain.

I can remember at the University of British Columbia, it wasn’t unusual, I’ll use a biomedical example here, but I think it applies across the board where there was really just some experimental results. Somebody runs a compound screen for some unvalidated targets and, hey, we’ve got a couple of hits and isn’t that interesting? And there’s a pharmaceutical company who’s willing to step in at that point and license it and really invest a lot in what is still a very early-stage project by today’s terms. And so now we’re just not seeing that, right? I think that would be a very rare, unique situation with amazing alignment with what that company was already working on to see a transaction like that.

And so now we’re seeing many steps after that, that the university is continuing down the value chain. For us, it might be trying to go through to IND, but I know at some hospital systems and medical schools, they’ll take it right into the clinic as well before it leaves the confines of the university.

So that’s, I think, a huge shift. And it’s a, what a challenge, right? Because that’s new for a university to act like an early-stage company and develop not just a technology, but to develop a market strategy, to develop a capital strategy, to develop a team. That is a huge expansion in responsibility and opportunity. So that’s probably the overarching theme I’ve seen change.

And we’re certainly trying to embrace that and feel it’s actually a necessity to do that.

You’ve mentioned challenge there. What is a noteworthy challenge that you have overcome in your career?

Well, I feel like we’ve done a lot here. I feel like we have really transformed innovation at CU. You know, that’s speaking for Venture Partners, but I see the same thing happening at the medical school with CU Innovations. I think they similarly really transformed there. But maybe to make it a little more like personal and a little more real, I’d say that for myself, it was overcoming some of the unique challenges in our profession, to be more specific, I feel like, you know, technology transfer, people can really be pulled in a lot of directions, right? Everyone’s got the answer of how to do this and how to do it right.

And what does somebody really do in that situation? And I feel like early in my career, I felt both the tension of being pulled in all those directions, well, the investors think we should do it this way, and the university administration thinks that way, and the faculty and ventures this way, and on and on you can go, right? And they don’t line up. It’s not a uniform message. So you can try and be all things to all people, right? And that doesn’t work. Or you can just try and align yourself totally with one of those opinions and try and put down the rest and also think that doesn’t work well. And you hear that sometimes.

Unfortunately, I think in our community, sometimes there’s a little bit of a sentiment of well, the investors don’t really understand or the inventors don’t understand or everybody who doesn’t understand. But I think that if we can like open the possibility that everybody is coming with this particular perspective that actually makes perfect sense to them and given their context is totally logical. But in order to get over that tension, or let’s say not get over it, live with it, and come up with our own unique strategy, I think for me that was really had to overcome that discomfort, right? A discomfort that I’m not going to try and be all things to all people. I’m not going to just align with what some other university is doing that works for them or what this particular person believes is the way to do tech transfer.

I think that was a challenging thing to do to be comfortable with that. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel doubt or uncertainty or fear when trying to do something new, but it’s more like, you know, just go ahead and do it anyway. And if anything, maybe feeling a little bit afraid of trying something new is a good sign, you know, that it might actually be new, innovative and taking a risk.

Yeah. Overcome the discomfort — I really like that phrase. That’s a really nice way of putting that.

On a related note, then perhaps if you had a magic wand, is there something that you would change about how tech transfer is done today? Tech transfer in the broadest kind of sense.

Oh, everything I just said, make it way easier. You know, actually, I’ll have two answers for this. So one is, maybe it’s okay. Things in tech transfer are far from perfect, but every time we evolve, whether it’s, you know, moving down the value chain or focusing more on developing people than developing patents, when we do that, when we grow in that way, I feel like we really learn something. I know I do. You know, the magic wand can maybe make those problems go away, but we lose out on the learning process. So maybe things are actually just fine. And even though there’s no resolution or perfection that’s been achieved yet, you know, we need to grow in the areas that we need to grow. So becoming more active and engaged, I think, in entrepreneurship generally. So that’s the first answer.

The second answer, if I really just, you know, cut to it, there are some things that I think that would be pretty good to change. And you know what I’d love to see is some kind of like corollary to the private investment world for social innovation. And sometimes social innovation absolutely can go into private investment, right? No problem. That can be positioned in a way that addresses a market need and has a potential for a recurring and large revenue stream. But sometimes it doesn’t, right? Sometimes a social innovation has a very small market opportunity, and yet the social impact can be huge. So I would love to see more social innovation funding resources with my magic wand. That’d be great.

That is a very good use. On that note, then perhaps, can you give me some examples of Colorado startups?

Sure. So the most famous one is Amgen. That’s an older one. So one of the largest biotech companies in the world that was co-founded by Professor Marv Caruthers, who’s actually — and that was in 1980 — he’s still on faculty here. We just worked with him on his latest startup company. So he’s an amazing person, right, still innovating. Latest one is in muscular dystrophy. But he invented the original chemical synthesis of DNA. So together with the cloning work of Boyer and Chang was some of the foundational innovation that created the modern biotech industry. So that’s the most famous. That was a long time ago, though.

One of the more recent success stories I’ll mention is Solid Power. And Solid Power is a now publicly traded company. It creates solid state batteries for electric vehicles. Well, I should say components for solid state batteries for electric vehicles, and is partnered with Ford and BMW. So if you’re driving a new electric Ford or BMW in the near future, you’ll have that CU Boulder technology embedded. And what that technology is, is this: so replacing a liquid electrolyte with a solid electrolyte provides these massive gains in efficiency.

Okay.

So for an electric vehicle, greatly extending the range, and at the same time, removing the safety concerns that come with flammability of liquid electrolytes as well. So that’s one of the recent companies that we’re really excited about.

And maybe one more is also in the climate tech category, which is Tynt Technologies. And Tynt is creating and scaling up dynamic windows, and are offering the only window product currently that can have both truly transparent windows and truly blacked out windows and everything in between in a rapid change. So currently there are dynamic windows on the market, but they have a yellow or a blue hue to them. So they don’t have that true clarity, and they also don’t have that true blackout option. That’s another of our current high growth companies that we’re really jazzed about.

That’s really cool. I might have to look into those because sometimes the sun is right in my eyes.

Uh-huh.

And it would be really cool to just have a button that I can push and just tint the windows a little bit.

All right. Okay, well, I’ll hook you up.

Awesome, thank you. We are almost out of time, is there anything else that you wanted to share before we go?

Maybe one thing is that just encourage everybody to really lean on each other within our profession. I feel like we’ve got such great camaraderie among universities and other research institutions. And I had that analogy earlier of being pulled in different directions, but we’re all sharing that similar experience. And any time that we do something to come together and talk about our challenges, I feel like for me, it’s always super valuable.

So your show here is a good example of that. But even just informal groups among universities, I feel like that’s always well worth leveraging. And I think that many are already doing that. So maybe perhaps it’s more for the folks who are new to the profession that they can always reach out. I feel like that’s something I’ve benefited from a lot.

Awesome. Some really good closing words. Bryn, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. It’s been a great pleasure and very fascinating as well.

Likewise, Thierry. Thank you so much for having me.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Talking Tech Transfer interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).