May 28, 2015

Taking Ideas from Campus to Corporation

A Q&A with John Biondi, Director of Discovery to Product (D2P)

Q: Can you explain the main mission of the Discovery to Product (D2P) program?

A: D2P is a reasonably new joint initiative between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). Our mission is to further the commercialization of innovations that come from the Madison campus. We do that by providing advice, mentoring, information and, in some cases, money to ideas and projects coming from any member of the campus community. We seek to move ideas out to commercialization and see them create products, services, companies and jobs in Wisconsin.

Q: The program recently announced its first graduating class, which must have been exciting for you and your team. Can you share some of your early experiences in providing assistance to this first class? 
A: As part of our commercialization effort, D2P has had a fund, we call it the Igniter Award Fund that allows us to fund projects that have achieved technical proof of concept and can be commercialized within 18 months. For our first class of 15 projects, we structured a Lean Startup-based workshop as the first step of getting these projects out of the lab and on the path to startup or licensing. This was followed by considerable one-on-one work on the part of D2P staff and mentors with each project. This has resulted in eight of the fifteen projects being on track to startup, two on track to licensing and another two that we are still working with to get back on track.

Q: What do you see as the main challenges for the program moving forward?

A: Currently we are extending the reach of our Lean Startup workshop approach from just the Igniter funded projects to any project or idea coming from campus. We want to provide a platform here on campus where campus entrepreneurs with a project at any stage of development can come and be exposed to a disciplined approach of moving toward startup or commercialization. We are also looking at ways to expand the number of subject matter experts we have to bring to bear on our projects and of doing that through utilization of the rich network of Badger alums out there in the world.

In the background we are seeking means to make our Igniter fund sustainable and to create a small equity seed fund for UW-Madison startups. We have established special programs with the BrightStar Foundation and with the UW Foundation to allow their donors to contribute to the Igniter Fund. We are also talking with other organizations about doing the same. We are completing the structural documentation for the equity seed fund while we look for patrons to supply the funding needed to match the money that is being offered to us to initiate the fund from WEDC. A sustained Igniter in combination with our own equity fund will allow us to mature projects on campus and then be part of their funding process as they form startups.

Q: How would you define success over the next five to ten years?

A: There are several key elements to success in the medium term:

(1)  Being able to consistently and predictably bring projects through our processes from ideas to proof of concept and then out to commercialization is the first requirement for success;
(2)  Creating the mechanisms to sustain the Igniter fund and an accompanying equity seed fund would be additional milestones we want to see accomplished;
(3)  Creating powerful mechanisms at D2P to connect D2P projects with networks of sophisticated subject matter experts and mentors as well as sources of ‘C’ level talent for these projects is also essential to the longer term success of D2P.

Q: The program recently issued a call for mentors interested in working with the program. Could you explain what type of attributes you are looking for? If somebody is interested, how should they go about getting in touch with you?

A: Our Mentor in Residence (MIR) program is one of the keys to our ability to provide appropriate and timely help to our projects. We first look for individuals who have deep experience in the technical area we are hiring for. We have two MIRs currently, one for life sciences and one for Information Technology. We are currently recruiting for one in engineering/physical sciences and one in bio-ag. Having experience at various levels of the value chain in the subject area is also helpful. The perfect candidate would have entrepreneurial experience in the field as well. There is a proscribed process for applying for university positions, but any one interested can contact me first (

Q: After having done so many startups on your own for so many years was it hard to back away from running a startup and take on the D2P role at the University?

A: No, first D2P has been a great opportunity to give back to the entrepreneurial community and to try to make a difference in economic development in Wisconsin. It has been a privilege to be able to assemble a team to work with the great projects, people and technologies at the University. Furthermore, I haven’t given up on the startup world altogether. My wife and I have a farm near Mineral Point, Wisconsin where we grow the wine grapes of apples. We produce a Calvados-style apple brandy and true (alcoholic) ciders. Cider is the fastest growing alcoholic beverage category in the history of the country so we have had our hands full trying to scale our operation to meet demand.