Instituting the Venture Studio Model at Your University

Matthew Bushery

It's not just leading corporations embracing the venture studio model today.

Many universities are emulating the corporate venture creation method by working with esteemed venture builders like High Alpha Innovation (HAI) to establish their own successful venture studios. In other words?

Educational institutions are taking a new path to unlock innovation on campus. Notably, one in which they can work on minimum viable products for concepts tied to university-led research through problem-led ideation.

"There are Rembrandts in the attic [at schools] all around the world who have done work that is capable of being commercialized," Joshua Gans, the Skoll Chair of Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Professor of Strategic Management at University of Toronto, told Wired.

Liaising with a proven venture partner with vast experience with and deep expertise in developing, validating, and launching early-stage startups is how universities like yours can create an ecosystem in which new business models and ideas can be explored in a centralized, coordinated manner.

And ones that can eventually be brought to market by your venture studio team.

The key to getting your institution's venture studio model off the ground, though, isn't solely about working with the right in-house team and external stakeholders.

It's also about knowing what kind of innovation — and, thereby, positive societal change in the communities where your campus resides and elsewhere in your region — is possible with such a synchronized, focused effort by your university's leadership, faculty, students, and alumni.

Why leading universities are now embracing the venture studio model

It may seem synonymous with the startup studio model. However, the venture studio model differs in that it is more focused on identifying and solving compelling problems through open innovation.

The goal for venture studios (at least ones that work with HAI): Launch revenue-generating companies that benefit society at scale.

Put another way? It's not simply about finding startups that are already in flight and taking control of the bulk of business operations. (Not to mention a sizable equity share from startup founders.)

In short, universities — like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which first leveraged this approach with help from HAI — that want to build a repeatable, scalable mechanism for creating new orgs that address issues of importance to their areas can see much more value with the venture studio model.

And, specifically, with the aid of a venture builder.

Here are two examples of universities that have partnered with HAI to develop studios that aim to produce thriving, long-lasting startups that tie into these institutions' distinct mission and vision, and help make meaningful impact in their states and regions (at least to begin with).

DIAL Ventures assesses and de-risks startups through agriculture industry relationship-building

Purdue University is one of the foremost research universities today.

Despite a wealth of interesting initiatives undertaken by programs and offices campus-wide over the years, Purdue leaders recognized the opportunity to better determine product-market fits for concepts assessed via university-led research related to the food and agriculture space.

Partnering with HAI helped Purdue establish DIAL Ventures, which focuses on introducing new, disruptive agrifood startups to the market.

Collaborating with veteran ag experts to understand farmers' biggest pain points today. Onboarding qualified entrepreneurial talent with rich industry knowledge and business acumen. Developing business plans to make prospective ventures appealing to outside venture capital looking to invest in startups.

These activities co-executed with HAI, among others have helped DIAL's venture studio model excel, with four new startups launched in recent years:

  • Croft: An ag-ops platform to manage data and tasks tied to workers and service providers
  • Oaken: A solution to help farm lessees manage landowner relationships and contracts
  • Gripp: A platform for connecting ag operations teams and managing farm equipment
  • Make Hay: A B2B marketing solution to help brands leverage farmers' authentic stories

"The [ag] industry needs to work with us in our ecosystem to get the best ideas so that we can de-risk those ideas," DIAL Ventures Executive Director Allan Gray expressed at HAI's recent Alloy event. "We're gonna bring talent to [those startups], and we do that by attracting talent from the outside."

1842 Studio aims to make long-term impact on poverty-related issues through venture building

While DIAL tackles ag-oriented endeavors, the University of Notre Dame has adopted their own venture studio model, in tandem with HAI, to address pressing issues tied to poverty, well-being, and sustainability in Indiana.

Notre Dame and HAI co-created the "impact-oriented" 1842 Studio, thanks to backing from the 1842 Fund, a pre-seed stage venture capital fund also managed by the school and HAI.

Kelley Rich, the Interim Vice President and Associate Provost for Innovation for the IDEA Center at the University of Notre Dame, noted the venture studio will "create symbiotic relationships for sustained innovation on campus" and the ability to investigate new potential business ideas to spin out.

Specifically, the studio will construct and staff new startup ventures through collaboration with professors, researchers, and undergrads at the university involved with the IDEA Center.

“I see this emergence of these venture studio models, and I see the appetite that people that are trying to commercialize at universities have," Matt Gardner, Partner for 1842 Fund at Notre Dame, told Global University Venturing.

"I think we’re going to see more of this.”

How to enable your university to tap into unlocked innovation through the venture studio model

Your university likely has its own plans for other kinds of open innovation initiatives that aim to confront one or more other societal challenges:

  • Perhaps you want to expand healthcare access in low-income areas.
  • Maybe you want to fix food insecurity issues within your community.
  • Or your goal could be to find new, novel ways reduce urban pollution.

Whatever your focus, the venture studio model can help your institution expedite the launch of and investment in new, viable companies that can solve problems facing your state, the country, and potentially the world at-large.

And the below two steps are ideal ones to start with to:

  • Set up your distinct university venture studio model quickly and efficiently
  • Acquire the expertise to launch high-performing and impactful businesses
  • Gain a reputation for unlocking innovation and empowering innovation hubs

(The combination of which can help your university potentially grow enrollment and secure more federal and state research and development grants.)

1) Determine what infrastructure and partnerships are needed to launch a venture studio

It's not just about getting the right people at your university in a room together to lay the groundwork for a venture studio. It's also about finding the right orgs and industry experts to partner with.

Consider the University of North Carolina.

John Bamforth, PhD, Director of Eshelman Innovation at UNC Chapel Hill, noted the school learned many great business ideas were "locked up" on campus. However, it was uncertain of the best way to effectively evaluate those ideas.

"The logical place to go was the High Alpha Innovation team and say, 'Can you help us do this?'," John relayed at Alloy 2023.

Since partnering with HAI, UNC has installed the Eshelman Innovation Venture Studio. Leveraging our guidance and proven venture-building playbook, we've explored opportunities to address one big issue in the state: the opioid crisis.

"We're on a journey to build this venture studio in digital health across the entire state," John added, noting HAI's support has helped implement the necessary structure to the startup creation process that didn't exist before at UNC.

2) Join a community like HAI's University Studio Guild to meet with other likeminded universities

School administrators, entrepreneurship center directors, and technology officers at research universities nationwide are considering the merits of the venture studio model today. And rightfully so, per HAI Director Matt Brady.

However, too few of these individuals know of other institutions from whom they can learn the ins and outs of venture studio creation.

That's where HAI's University Studio Guild (USG) can help.

"University leaders who take part in USG can network with a community of likeminded individuals at other schools who are in a similar spot," said Matt.

"Our quarterly meetup of innovation-focused university stakeholders allows them to tap into expert insights from those at other institutions with established and successful venture studios, including those that we're helping to launch multiple advantaged startups," Matt continued.

University representatives who join USG can:

  • Ask pressing questions about the logistics/process of venture studio formation
  • Share their distinct concepts and ideas, and discuss collaboration opportunities
  • Simply learn from one another by sharing stories of their own studio experiences

Factor in venture-building experts who speak at USG from entities like MIT and McKinsey, who spoke at the Q1 2024 edition of USG, and there is ample opportunity for schools to get the info and insights they need for their venture studio blueprint.

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