As a biologist, John Higley has spent much of his career as a researcher at biopharmaceutical companies.
But when in 2016 he launched his own company — Environmental Quality Operations, which developed a promising zebra mussel monitoring and detection device – he realized he had a blind spot.
He knew how to do the science, Higley said – but he didn’t know how to make the business part work.
“My original thought was if it works, the product will sell itself,” Higley said. “That’s not how business works at all.”
About a year ago, Higley teamed up with Austin Technology Incubator – and he says that put his company on the right path.
“We tackled everything from a marketing strategy to understanding intellectual property to how a business needs to be structured,” he said.
Higley’s story is not just an example of how a resource like the Austin Technology Incubator can help a startup.
It also shows how ATI has evolved in recent years – and where the University of Texas-affiliated incubator is heading as it nears its 30th birthday.
‘Rebuilding the brand’
When UT created the Austin Technology Incubator in 1989, it was a pioneer, offering Central Texas startups office space, mentoring and a pipeline to investors.
“We were one of the first to try this, and the model was simple — we dealt with every kind of entrepreneur that wanted to be there,” said Laura Kilcrease, who co-founded the incubator with famed Austin business leader George Kozmetsky. “At the time, that meant three basic industries: hardware, software and semiconductors.”
In 2018, however, Austin’s startup community has evolved, with companies breaking ground in clean tech, biotech, artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain.
ATI has responded, and now focuses on helping founders take on big technical challenges using emerging technologies.
But with dozens of new incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces operating across Austin, that message has sometimes gotten muted, ATI’s leaders say.
The incubator is working to raise its profile and play a larger role within UT and the Austin startup scene.
“We’ve been under the radar, and we should not be under the radar anymore,” said Gregory Pogue, interim executive director of UT’s IC2 Institute think tank. ATI is part of the institute. “We need to reposition ourselves with the Austin community.”
Leading that effort is Mitch Jacobson, who was named director of ATI in October.
Jacobson says ATI is “building a new team, rebuilding the brand and showing how we differentiate ourselves.”
‘Doubling down on deep tech’
Jacobson says these days, the difference starts with ATI’s focus on what he calls “deep tech” around four sectors: clean energy, biological and health sciences, business and intellectual property emerging from UT, and transportation and mobility and water.
“We’re not doing things around parking apps and dating apps. We’re doubling down on deep tech, which involves trying to solve big problems with big solutions,” Jacobson said. “That can be clean air, clean water, drugs around cancer or new carbon capture technology.”
They are issues that require more than a standard 12-week accelerator program.
“Deep tech takes more time, it usually takes more money, it takes more patience on the side of the investors and on the side of the entrepreneur, and it takes a lot more persistence,” Jacobson said. “We have a relationship with these companies for a long time, not just three months. They’re usually with us for at least a year, and in some cases it could be up to three years.”
Joshua Baer, founder of Capital Factory, the downtown Austin tech accelerator and co-working space, said ATI is an important part of the Central Texas ecosystem for startups.
“As far as resources to help entrepreneurs go, the more the better,” Baer said. “Each has a different focus and feel, such as ATI focusing on capital intensive startups that require a lot of R&D.”
ATI’s leaders say the proof that its formula works is shown in its results: Since its founding, the incubator has graduated 191 companies, and between 2005 and 2017 the companies $1.2 billion in investment capital.
Although ATI works closely with disciplines across UT to find technologies that can be commercialized, startups aren’t required to have ties to the university to apply. After going through the application process and being accepted, ATI takes a 2 percent equity stake in each company. Currently, 17 startups are ATI member companies.
Member companies have access to co-working space and conference rooms at ATI’s headquarters on San Gabriel Street near UT campus. The incubator moved from the West Pickle Research Building on North Braker Lane to the new space late last year in an effort to strengthen ties to university professors, researchers and students.
“We’ve found that the most valuable thing was the ability to get people together,” Pogue said. “We now offer a centralized spot between campus and North and South Austin where people can meet for free and don’t have to pay for downtown parking.”
Through a partnership with Austin Community College biotech incubator, member companies also have access to ACC’s wet lab space at the Highland Campus. ATI also partners with other Austin accelerators and co-working spaces including Capital Factory, Techstars and Tech Ranch for events and networking.
For member company Yotta Solar, ATI has provided three things it needed — access to engineering and business interns from UT, a place to meet investors and strategic partners, and an introduction to Austin Energy that led to a grant.
“We started as two people in a garage just a couple years ago, and through ATI we have really moved forward,” said Omeed Badkoobeh, CEO of Yotta, which is developing a high-life battery for solar panel installations. “It has been tremendous for us, and it’s only the beginning.”
Higley, the founder of Environmental Quality Operations, says there’s no doubt that teaming up with ATI changed everything for his startup.
“I spent a lot of time in office hours,” he said, “and every decision we made early on was made based on what I learned there.”
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