Launchpad: Connecting University Startups with the Marketplace

LaunchPad is a twelve week accelerator programme, run by the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC), which aims to give tech start ups from third-level institutions an intensive grounding in the skills needed to take their idea from technology to marketplace. The programme, in its third cycle since its inception in 2009, caters for ten teams of no more than three members.

Gary Leyden, is an entrepreneur who is also the director of the LaunchPad programme. he says the approach of getting actual business people into the course is “representative of the NDRC as an organisation. It is bringing together commercial partners and research partners with the NDRC sitting in the middle. So we create very strong links with the colleges”.

“We believe that you don’t create an entrepreneur, you create the infrastructure or the ecosystem that supports entrepreneurialism, and that there are specific skills that you need to acquire in order to help you become an entrepreneur. And we’re trying to work in making sure that the researchers and post-doc’s acquire those more commercial skills that will help them on their path to becoming an entrepreneur.”

“We’re really focusing now on the lean startup methodology. You have agile software development, which is coding as you go along and iterating, but alongside that we’ve got a module which is around customer development, which is actually going out and talking to the market at a very early stage, and feeding that back into your software development constantly. So what you’re doing is you’re coding very much based on feedback from your potential marketplace. So it just means you can really get to market with a very strong product-market fit at a very early stage.”

Gary’s introduction to the NDRC came through his own company V Rising  who are now the commercial partners of an NDRC Catalyser project working with Trinity College to develop a 3-D learning platform.

It is these commercial partnerships which mark the LaunchPad programme and other NDRC initiatives out from other programmes out there, Gary believes.

“To be honest, although the money is important, it’s probably the minor thing. We offer a stipend of up to €5,000 per person on the team, to a maximum of three people per team, and then we also put in €5,000 worth of expenses that they can draw down as well, so a team of three can have up to €20,000 worth of support.”

What’s more important is “Just being able to put people in this co-working space, with nine other teams who are all focused on the same thing which is about building a business. It’s about linking them with other entrepreneurs, taking the mystique out of it, saying ‘I’ve made mistakes as well, don’t worry about that, this is what I learned’.”

Nonetheless, competition is stiff for the programme’s Lift-Off event at the end of the twelve weeks. This is an investor pitch, where the NDRC match the investment raised by the winners, resulting in a prize fund of “probably €50-60,000”.

“As regards value for money, the return on investment can be exponential on that. You’re not putting large amounts of money into a few big projects. You’re putting small amounts into a lot of small projects.”

The initial investment and any prize money awarded “is actually an investment in the company”, but Gary stresses that the NDRC does not claim any intellectual property rights from LaunchPad participants. “We just become a shareholder in their company. It’s a very clean, straightforward arrangement”.

The nine teams that do not win the prize fund are “not just cut loose into the wild at the end of twelve weeks”, Gary points out. “At the end of those twelve weeks, and after the lift-off event, we have a graduate programme where we bring them in and we start to focus much more around raising investment, and because they’ve gone through a very high degree of validation, they really understand where the opportunities are in the market. So the next phase for them is really to raise money to scale up”.

A number of the participants in the previous cycle are at that stage at the moment, Gary tells us, while two of the participants in the inaugural LaunchPad programme have recently received significant investment, including JLizard.

As an entrepreneur himself, Gary is acutely aware of the importance of sharing his experience with the participants in the programme as the take their first steps in the unknown, and he acknowledges that a sense of kinship amongst entrepreneurs contributes to the success of the programme.

“I think that as an organisation, we have a huge reach into the business community, not just locally but internationally as well. And we leverage that and pull in all the favours that we can. And in the main, most entrepreneurs are delighted to do that, because they always got a lift up when they were starting out, they’re only too happy to give someone else a lift up starting out as well. I haven’t met a single entrepreneur who wouldn’t want to do that, and they will always free up time from very busy schedules to make space.”

The excitement of starting a new business is something that Gary seeks to encourage and, through the LaunchPad programme, these entrepreneurs are being given the skills to bring these ideas to fruition.

“As an entrepreneur you’re at the fun end of it, the research has been done. it’s now about going out and talking to customers, and that’s where the really exciting stuff happens.”

Additional material and co-authorship credit to Conor Harrington..

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