By Brian Brus
Courtesy of The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s rarely highlighted in newspapers, but a lot of brilliant business concepts that drive fledgling entrepreneurs to carefully map out market plans and secure financial resources just don’t pan out.
And when those business developers admit that it’s time to walk away, you know the incubator process is working, said Elaine Hamm, director of the new Oklahoma Proof of Concept Center.
Consider the fate of PristineCal, for example, on which The Journal Record first reported more than a year ago when the potential company was named a semifinalist in the annual Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup business plan competition. This month Oklahoma State University student entrepreneurs Rachel Mui and Stacey Brandhorst had just completed six weeks of testing at the PCC and made another strong presentation about commercializing technology that removes heavy metals from calcium, when they came to a surprising conclusion.
Their next step was conveyed in the image of a traffic sign projected on the screen before an audience of 50 businesspeople at the Proof of Concept Center.
“The answer isn’t always positive,” Hamm said. “I’ve had to kill my own patent applications when I was a graduate student. I had to admit, ‘Oh – I’m the only one who likes this.’ It’s a hard admission to make.”
The PristineCal student team represented one end of the range of possible outcomes for the inaugural class at the PCC, while at the other end a group from the University of Oklahoma firmly decided to move forward with plans to commercialize sensor technology that detects dangerous gases and other difficult-to-capture motion phenomena such as fire.
Another team from OU found themselves in the middle, agreeing only to continue evaluating a technology that prevents interference for wireless medical devices. Their business plan isn’t dead yet, Hamm said, but nor is it strong enough to deserve additional resources. That’s the purpose of the PCC, which works in collaboration with the nonprofit business development agency i2E and the technology transfer offices at OU and OSU.
“It’s a very difficult job to commercialize university technologies,” she said. “We’re providing one more bridge on the road to success, so to speak.
“A few years ago the National Science Foundation recognized that it had basic science research grants and it also had small business innovation research grants, but they didn’t have anything in between,” she said. “What we’ve kind of done is model ourselves after their commercialization boot camp. We’re providing a specific kind of the business model campus. … You have to find the right strategy, and sometimes that leads to a ‘No’ answer.”
The proof-of-concept evaluation process promoted at the PCC is based on the scientific process, Hamm said, in the sense that a business plan represents a theory that must be tested and refined with additional research before allowing it to enter the market. That research can lead an entrepreneur down many different paths because of the competitive nature of business – the experts already operating in the field might not be willing to give up valuable trade secrets, Hamm said. Entrepreneurs have to gingerly poke around manufacturers, government regulatory agencies and even consumer feedback.
The final component is a blunt self-evaluation in which an entrepreneur’s ego and self-esteem are set aside to serve a greater good. And that’s exactly what the PristineCal team accomplished, Hamm said.
It’s a lesson that will serve them well in their next business endeavor .
The second PCC class is scheduled to start in August.