Nov 12, 2013

Mentors help inventors make the leap to entrepreneur

Excerpted from
By David Tenebaum

It’s a story that could become a company’s founding narrative. The two Steves built their first Apple computer in the garage. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start a software company. And 4-year-old Patrick Heaney broke a plastic sword while play-fighting — and recognized that materials can always stand improvement.

Eventually, that could become the founding narrative of NCD Technologies LLC, a Madison startup that is developing a super-hard diamond coating for industrial cutting tools.

The technique was invented in the UW-Madison lab of mechanical engineering Associate Professor Frank Pfefferkorn, where Heaney received his Ph.D. in 2009. But when NCD finally makes a profit, some of the credit will be due to a high-tech, high-touch UW mentoring program called MERLIN Mentors.

Despite the name, MERLIN (Madison Entrepreneur Resource, Learning and Innovation Network) specializes in advice rather than magic. “We want to get skills in entrepreneurship to people interested in creating companies,” says Terry Sivesind, MERLIN’s director.

A serial entrepreneur who spent seven years helping make Promega a world-leading source of biological reagents, Sivesind knows that many would-be entrepreneurs have a technical background and far less expertise in skills that quickly become equally important — hiring, intellectual property, contracts, identifying markets — and of course, finding money to fund the startup process.

MERLIN is supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, University Research Park, the Wisconsin School of Business, and the Office of Corporate Relations at UW-Madison. Since it began five years ago this month, it has assisted 160 mentees and been involved in the creation or growth of 72 companies.

Entrepreneurs needing mentorship first present themselves and their ideas to a small screening group. Most then repeat the process to a larger meeting of potential mentors who can form a team around any interesting person or project.

Mentors are selected based on business and technical experience, Sivesind says. “We want people who have been there, who have seen how much energy, focus and perseverance is needed to get a business on its feet.”

Mentoring is a smart way to build the local economy, Sivesind says. “We can’t import people, but we can take the expertise we have here and share it, broaden it.”

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