(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series spotlighting Gary Rawlings, one of several individuals who serve as mentors in both the Life Science Network and the Energy Mentor Network. More recently, as noted in this teknovation.biz article, Rawlings has joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a Technology Consultant for the “Innovation Crossroads” program.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“I loved the crap out of that job,” Gary Rawlings says about his seven years as Vice President for Commercialization at TechColumbus, the non-profit now known as Rev1 Ventures. “It was not about me, but rather how I can help the clients be a success.”
That passion for the work was noted in the first article in this series. On a weekly basis for seven years, Rawlings commuted seven hours each way from Greensboro, NC to Columbus to work with entrepreneurs and technology generators in 16 counties.
TechColumbus and five other organizations were funded under Ohio’s Third Frontier Program established with tobacco settlement funding and focused on growing the state’s tech-based economic development base. Rawlings describes his role as a middleman between those licensing technologies and those wanting to build ventures around the technologies.
“I explained what each other was saying,” he said. Those who are on either side of the discussion would probably agree that translation is sometimes needed.
Rawlings also says he “coached, guided, and mentored people going for Third Frontier grants. I really grilled them.”
“In my efforts at TechColumbus, I helped my clients over that period raise in excess of $20 million in early stage start-up capital from federal and state programs and from angel and VC networks,” he said, adding, “I also was an active member, behind the scene, for the Ohio TechAngels.”
That experience at TechColumbus, coupled with nearly 30 years in corporate business development work, prepared the Houston, TX native for his current activities with two mentoring programs operated by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (TAEBC) and Life Science Tennessee respectively and work as Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Cumberland Emerging Technologies in Nashville. Funding for the mentor networks comes from Launch Tennessee.
So, it was only natural that we asked Rawlings to share with us lessons he’s learned and advice he would offer entrepreneurs.
First up was something we frequently hear. “You have to talk to customers,” Rawlings said, citing a mandatory requirement for companies in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) initiative. The program is designed to help individuals who are interested in commercializing their tech-based ideas build a business model that addresses their customers’ needs. As such, it requires the participants to interview a minimum of 100 potential customers.
To illustrate the importance of understanding the true needs of customers, Rawlings said TechColumbus had a “First Customer” initiative that was very successful. “You have to know everything about your business from its technology to its customers,” he added.
On the matter of raising funds for a new venture, Rawlings reminds those he mentors that venture capital is not the only source and, in fact, is probably not the best for many start-ups. “For early stage companies, VCs are usually not a viable option.”
In the case of new ventures in the life science sector, he advises them to find a consultant – a “smart adviser” in his words – with experience working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help determine the data they need from a regulatory perspective.
“When I first came here (to Tennessee), I asked people how I could help,” Rawlings said. Now, more than three years after relocating to Murfreesboro, he’s bringing broad science and technology knowledge, along with business skills, to an ever-growing array of start-ups.