Nurturing Invention: How VentureWell brings ideas to market
Mushrooms that take the place of plastics. A ventilator that saves infants in Malawi and costs less than $200. A replacement for rebar that makes buildings safer during earthquakes. These are just a few of the hundreds of ideas and companies that have been nurtured by VentureWell, a long-time grantee, partner, and collaborator of The Lemelson Foundation.
THE INVENTION OF VENTUREWELL
VentureWell is the embodiment of Jerome Lemelson’s vision for students to drive economic growth. The Massachusetts-based national nonprofit launches new ventures from student inventors, helping them cultivate their skills and creativity and bring their ideas to market. VentureWell is an integral part of The Lemelson Foundation’s work to improve lives through invention.
The organization itself is an invention. Jerome Lemelson envisioned universities as potential hubs for entrepreneurship that would create jobs and strengthen the economy. He saw the work of student entrepreneurs as feeding into a virtuous cycle: Students who are empowered with the right resources and training are able to invent products and establish companies that address important problems and expand the economy.
The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), which would eventually become VentureWell, was born from this idea in 1995. Jerome Lemelson convened a group of higher education faculty at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA to discuss how to make learning more experiential and hands-on while boosting student ideas and helping them commercialize resultant products. At the time, the idea of scientists, engineers, and inventors of other stripes becoming entrepreneurs was not commonly accepted.
In the past two decades, VentureWell has supported inventors who have created hundreds of companies that employ people and generate products that impact the lives of millions around the world.
E-TEAMS AND BEYOND
The cornerstone of VentureWell’s model is a construct called the E-Team, where “E” stands for “entrepreneurship.” It is a collaboration of student entrepreneurs, a faculty advisor, and mentors from the commercial world who work to transform an idea into real-world impact. E-Teams allow groups of inventors to evolve and test their ideas, with a focus on proving market viability while learning the process of taking an idea to commercial impact.
One example of successful E-Team collaborations is Helix, a cost-effective replacement for rebar that increases the strength and durability of concrete, allowing structures like buildings and roads to flex rather than crack. By decreasing the amount of concrete used in building projects, Helix also reduces their carbon footprint and shows how inventions can improve environmental sustainability. Helix was the brainchild of an engineering student and MBA from Michigan who formed an E-Team and won an early VentureWell grant that led to exponentially more funding. Helix is now used in commercial, residential, and infrastructure projects in more than 30 countries including the U.S.
Sometimes the work of E-Teams involves important strategy shifts. The marine enthusiast founders of Ecotech Marine, for example, aimed to build commercial reef aquarium systems. Their initial product, launched with a VentureWell grant for product development, flopped. The team then shifted to focus on a pump that combines the actions of a motor and a propeller to mimic the flow of ocean water and simulate a natural reef system. Another follow-on VentureWell grant enabled them to pursue a distribution agreement and a limited production run, and the company took off. Ecotech Marine now employs more than 50 people, and sells its products in 50 countries through 35 distributors. The company is also active in the conservation arena, providing significant support for the Coral Restoration Foundation.
VentureWell’s work goes far beyond U.S.-focused ventures. The solar lamp company Greenlight Planet started when a handful of University of Illinois students were intrigued by the challenge of how to bring electricity to rural Indian villages. These motivated students explored this conundrum and possible solutions with faculty members supported by VentureWell. They formed an E-Team, and were later able to leverage a VentureWell grant to raise private capital. Greenlight Planet has now sold more than one million solar lanterns to households in rural India.
For Greenlight Planet and many other VentureWell-launched companies, success does not come from a single grant or classroom interaction, but from a web of VentureWell touch points over time. One of the most important touch points student entrepreneurs have is with faculty who can motivate and mentor them. Inspired by Jerome Lemelson's belief that innovation can and should be taught, VentureWell’s faculty grants support the creation of new courses and programs in which students develop ideas and gain skills to bring them to market.
Ecovative Design, a successful company that produces an alternative to plastic grown from natural materials, emerged from one such class called the Inventor’s Studio at Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute. At RPI, a dynamic, VentureWell-supported faculty member led two student collaborators through rounds of ideation and failed inventions until they developed a concept that would work commercially: a biodegradable plastics substitute grown from mushrooms that has the potential to dramatically change the packaging industry. Today, Ecovative has raised over $14 million in equity and generated millions in annual revenue.
Throughout its two decades of work, VentureWell has collaborated closely with The Lemelson Foundation. In addition to providing the organization’s initial vision nearly two decades ago, the Foundation has been a key partner and funder ever since – for E-Teams, faculty, courses, and core support. The Lemelson team has worked in partnership with other foundations and government agencies to support VentureWell’s work. The organization has also benefitted from collaboration with the ecosystem of Foundation grantees, including Villgro, which has helped select E-Teams make their products relevant to the developing world.
VentureWell recognizes the value of this deep partnership. “It’s been a privilege to work with The Lemelson Foundation in developing programs and making connections to higher education, the investment community, and the philanthropic world. They really are remarkable collaborators and have been highly effective at pulling together networks of people that are unique and unparalleled in our space,” said Phil Weilerstein, president of VentureWell.
IMPACT AND SUCCESS
The partnership has been amazingly successful. VentureWell has made strategic financial investments that have had exponential impact. They have given over $7.5 million in catalytic grants to over 500 student teams – and those student teams have raised more than $620 million to launch new businesses. Another measurement of success is impact on people. VentureWell touches 10,000 students each semester, helping them see a path forward for their ideas and products during a formative stage in their personal and professional development.
Kaléo is illustrative of VentureWell’s success. The company grew out of an E-Team from the University of Virginia that was led by Evan Edwards. Evan and his twin Eric were both severely allergic to bee stings, many foods, and other types of allergens, and wanted to create a better, smarter version of their bulky EpiPen injectors. A modest VentureWell grant more than a decade ago got them started. They went on to revolutionize the field with the creation of Auvi-Q, a small, credit card-shaped auto-injector with a simple, snap-off cover that provides instructions with an annunciator. Auvi-Q is now licensed to the global pharmaceutical company Sanofi, and Kaléo just launched a new, life-saving product that auto-injects naloxone to people who overdose on opioids.
VentureWell is well-positioned to continue growing and launching companies like Kaléo, and positively impacting lives in the next 20 years. In late 2014, the organization rebranded from NCIIA to VentureWell, underscoring its focus on taking ideas to impact through ventures and doing it in a way that creates social benefit.
The inventors nurtured by VentureWell increasingly transcend national borders, making a difference in people’s lives both in the U.S. and across the globe. VentureWell’s new Xcelerator training program, which is supported by The Lemelson Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and USAID, provides training and coaching specifically for inventor entrepreneurs working to address global health and development challenges. Developing a product and business in the developing world can be complicated, and the Xcelerator training helps inventors speed up this process.
This month, VentureWell’s annual Open Conference will bring together hundreds of student entrepreneurs and faculty in Washington, D.C. to celebrate and wrestle with the challenges of starting invention-based businesses. The days’ topics will include how to create high-impact mentoring and entrepreneurship programs and how to incorporate design thinking into curricula. The conference concludes with an exhibition called Open Minds, where more than a dozen student teams will showcase their products and ventures, and practice their business pitches.
The Open Conference is yet another manifestation of the creativity, collaboration, and entrepreneurial drive that The Lemelson Foundation seeks to foster. According to Phil Weilerstein, “VentureWell is realizing Jerry Lemelson’s vision to create a different path to become an inventor.”