University Startups and Spin-Offs: Guide for Entrepreneurs in Academia (2015)


Eighteen Years as a Startup Entrepreneur

When I embarked on the path of entrepreneurship 18 years ago, little did I know exactly where it would lead me and what surprises were in store along the way. Some of my ideas and projects failed dismally, but luckily, others were far more successful than I ever dreamed. I learned many lessons and combined them with some thoughts about launching startups out of universities. This is what this book is about.

My journey was far from elegant. Always thinking I would be a surgeon, I enrolled in medical school in my native Zurich/Switzerland. During the first year, it became clear that this was not for me, because my attention mostly focused on my private projects and experiments. After trying a few other fields, including psychology and sociology, I left university at age 21, slightly confused, with big plans about my own company and a bankroll in the high three digits. It was the dawn of the first Internet boom, and the winds were fortunate. Within a few short years, my little startup producing multimedia content for web pages had mushroomed into a respectable enterprise with several verticals and clients among the largest Swiss banks, insurance companies, airlines, hotels, automobile companies, and consumer brands. I profitably exited that business in 2001, six months before the NASDAQ crash had sunk in as a reality, and emigrated to Los Angeles, where the grass was greener (or so I thought).

Replicating the business model that had worked back home was my first attempt at American business, which gave me much insight into how well-protected and transparent the Swiss business environment had been. After producing a documentary film and founding several companies, a fun idea that had started as a side project eventually took flight and ended in a seven-figure joint venture deal with a large Japanese media company. So I moved to Tokyo. Simultaneously, a software startup I had co-founded in San Francisco received seed funding from a venture capital firm. Life was good. A strong believer in life-long learning, I enrolled in the international program at the London School of Economics and studied for three post-grad finance and private equity designations, all at the same time. Then the software business missed its milestones for next-round funding in the financial crisis of 2007/8. In the following years, I started a consulting practice in finance and economics, into which I integrated my diverse entrepreneurial experience.

Is entrepreneurship always fun? Of course not. Nevertheless, startup war stories are fun to tell. There is often more learning in a failure than in a success, however painful it is. For example, I remember an epic computer crash that resulted in the total loss of all the data and backups of an expensive client project that was ready for delivery. It had taken 6 months to complete, and the deadline was 24 hours away. With much rhetoric, it was possible to push it forward 2 days. This left me with exactly 72 hours to produce everything again from scratch. Fixing the defective hardware. Flying in some of the experts who had been working on the project. Explaining the crisis, which made them laugh and me cringe inside. And on top of all that, keeping everybody on the project happy while pulling a three-nighter myself. Then the day came to deliver the project to the wary client. I needed all the goodwill I could possibly get. The principal decision-maker wanted to take a seat, but an employee accidentally pulled the chair out from underneath him and he landed hard on the concrete floor. And I had thought the situation could not get any worse.

In fact, many entrepreneurs doubt the path they have embarked on when they speak in private. Not when the million-dollar buyout has just completed, but when things are not going so well. Entrepreneurship seems in many respects to be the path of most resistance. It is impossible to know all the answers to why and how it works. It took me about a decade to wrap my head around certain successes and failures and to understand why they had happened and what I could have handled better. However, when the stars align and a project takes off like a rocket, that makes it all worthwhile. Over time, it becomes much easier to cope with the volatility of entrepreneurship. After all, high waves hardly scare those who have seen them before.

Currently I advise several startups on strategy, business development, and financial innovation, integrating the perspective of the serial entrepreneur, economist, investor, and venture capitalist. One consulting project includes a research university in Singapore. Launching startups out of academia holds much promise for the future and is dear to my heart, and so this book came about.

For your journey to a successful startup, I wish you all the best. If I could do it, so can you. Just take that first step, and never look back.