A local entrepreneur devoted the past 10+ years of his life to living the promise of the “technopreneurial” program – come get an MBA degree and leave with a company.
The concept was launched in 2001 by Lee Martin, a well-known businessman and engineer who was working with the University of Tennessee (UT). It captured the imagination of Chuck Witkowski, a second-year MBA student from Johnson City, who had tasted corporate America while working for a few years at Motorola. The experience convinced him that his career path was in a different direction.
With Martin as his mentor, Witkowski started what would become Protein Discovery, a tech company that developed new tools for protein research. Over the years to come, he raised a total $16 million in venture capital to fund his business and led the development of a dozen commercial products. In November 2011, Protein Discovery merged with Expedeon Ltd., a global provider of protein research products on whose board of directors Witkowski currently serves.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Witkowski shared his thoughts on the decade-long journey, as well as some advice for aspiring technology entrepreneurs. This is the first article of a two-part interview.
Teknovation: Why were you so inspired by Lee Martin’s technopreneurial concept of getting a degree and leaving with a company?
Witkowski: Well, I was inspired by the concept because it was exactly what I wanted to do – I knew I was an entrepreneur, and I wanted to start a tech company. The problem was, I didn’t really know how. So, when I learned of the class, I was thrilled. Here was a course on how to start a tech company that was to be taught by a highly successful entrepreneur, someone who had actually built a tech company from scratch and taken it public. There aren’t many professors like that. So, I jumped at the opportunity and followed my dream. Twelve years later, I can say with certainty that Lee’s course changed my life.
Teknovation: What key principles did Lee instill in you?
Witkowski: First of all, I should say that Lee was and remains my mentor and a close friend. I have learned so much from Lee over the years that I couldn’t begin to summarize all that he has taught me. However, there were a few basic tenants to the course and Lee’s philosophy of how students like me could start up and bootstrap a tech company.
The first principle, if you want to call it that, was that you have to believe – you have to believe in yourself and believe that you can be successful. One of the books Lee had the class read, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, impacted me in a profound way. The premise is that if you believe you will be successful, whether it’s financially or in any other endeavor, and if you work hard and smart, you can create your destiny. I really gravitated towards that mindset. The reality is that being successful building a technology company is extraordinarily difficult and during the journey, one always encounters what seem to be insurmountable obstacles. Without the almost blind belief that you can persevere and succeed, most people give up. Or, just as bad, your team will sense that you don’t believe, and they will quit. So, that’s #1 – he helped me and others believe.
Lee also gave us a lot of really practical guidance. For example, Lee showed us how to source new technologies from university and government technology transfer organizations. The fact that one could license existing technology around which to build a business was an entirely new concept to me. Lee taught us how to evaluate the technology and ultimately how to negotiate an economical, reasonable license.
So, we had the belief, we had the technology. Next was funding. And what Lee taught us there was incredibly valuable, because this is the point where most wannabe tech entrepreneurs get stuck and never really start – how do you fund development of the technology? It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. You don’t have the money to develop the technology, but you can’t raise money until the technology is further developed. What Lee introduced the class to was the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program, which is a federal program that provides a couple billion dollars in research grants annually to small businesses for the sole purpose of developing innovative, new technology. The SBIR program is sponsored by the small business administration and administered by various government agencies, like the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.
At the time, one could apply for a Phase I “feasibility” study that, if funded, would yield $100,000 in development funding. Then, if the feasibility study went well, one could apply for a Phase II grant worth $500,000. I think the numbers have increased since then. For me, this was a breakthrough – here was a way to bootstrap development of the technology to a point where I might be able to attract outside equity investment. And the best point was that it was essentially free – one doesn’t give up any ownership for these funds. So, that’s what I did – I wrote and submitted 25 grants during an initial six month period, which resulted in $200,000 in initial funding that launched the business.
Again, Lee has taught me so much, both during the course and through the years that followed, that I couldn’t begin to do it justice here. But I want to touch one other point, a principle that he embodies and which has impacted me. As I studied Lee in an effort to discover what had made him successful, one of the many things I found was that he strived for excellence in everything he did. Whether it was business, home life, spiritual life, teaching the course, whatever, I have never seen Lee do anything that was not of the highest standards or without great consideration and energy. And just seeing that, seeing how he expected excellence from himself and everyone around him, I was really inspired by that. And that’s an expectation that I have come to embrace as a person and an entrepreneur.
I’ll tell you a quick story that I remember that’s kind of funny, but also makes the point. I remember one time in class, I think it was the semester when everyone was supposed to write a business plan around their technology. We had spent practically all semester learning how to write a fundable business plan. The only deliverable that semester was the business plan itself. I remember a class towards the end of the semester after we had all turned our plans in. Lee started class by reading the first lines from a fellow student’s executive summary. Of course, we all expected that he was reading from the “best” plan that had been submitted. However, in the second sentence of the summary, he read aloud a glaring grammatical mistake that the student had made. Lee stopped reading, paused for about two seconds, and then in dramatic fashion threw the business plan across the room. Half the pages from the plan ripped out of the binder and scattered throughout the room. This was essentially the student’s thesis and now it lay strewn across the room. As you can imagine, everyone gasped. But the point was well-received – can you really expect an investor to invest in your business if you don’t even take the time to proof-read your own plan? What kind of message about quality and attention to detail does that send to a potential investor? Where’s the pride in ownership? What Lee expected was excellence and the reality is that’s what you’ve got to expect from yourself if you want to be really successful, not just in business but in any aspect of life. I hope Lee doesn’t mind me telling that story.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: Witkowski’s “lessons learned” and his plans for the future.