Nurturing VCU Startups through Partnerships

In 2021, Innovation Gateway was given the responsibility of fostering new university startup ventures. It’s an important pathway of technology commercialization and one that requires numerous community partnerships to thrive.

One critical partner is Activation Capital, a Richmond-based entity championing a startup ecosystem in Central Virginia. It works with industry clusters, entrepreneur support organizations, and company founders to accelerate their development and growth in the region. Chandra Briggman leads that organization, housed within the same building as Innovation Gateway in downtown’s VA Bio+Tech Park.

“We want to develop a sustainable system to mature IP and technology coming out of VCU. This pipeline is important to building a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Our goal is to create an environment that produces more scalable businesses that are generating economic and social benefits for the region long-term,” says Briggman. She stepped in as Activation’s CEO in 2020 and, paired with an MBA from MIT, spent years supporting innovators and startups in New England.

Briggman is working closely with Gerard Eldering, Innovation Gateway’s Director of New Ventures.

“Relative to a lot of other universities, VCU’s research activity is enormous,” says Eldering. A successful serial entrepreneur, he also spent more than a decade consulting with university tech transfer offices before joining the team. “Now it’s about putting all these pieces together: turning university research into startups, and then working with the community to connect those startups with the infrastructure and relationships they need to succeed.”

 So, what does success look like? “It is easy to mimic what other cities are doing to build their ecosystems and hope for their results. Instead, we must focus on our local strengths and assets in order to build a unique, compelling community,” Briggman says. “VCU’s research portfolio is one of those assets we can build upon.”

 Second, she says, Activation Capital and VCU must adopt an “agile mindset and methodologies” that allow for experimentation, validation, and course-correcting “to prove we are doing the right things to catalyze true growth. I want to be able to say we’re helping ‘X’ number of backable ventures to launch, scale, and make a global impact,” she says. “To me, that’s a signal we’re growing an effective pipeline.”

 The partnership will initially focus on short-listing promising VCU technologies and pairing startup-worthy IP and academic inventors with experienced entrepreneurial leadership and talent.

 Both partners say the foundation is in place. Last year VCU broke a record in sponsored research funding at $363 million, marking a 25% increase over the previous three years.

 “A university research portfolio of that size is a really good indication that VCU can create companies from its IP,” Briggman says. “Now it’s on us to make sure that we translate some of that research into businesses in the Central Virginia innovation ecosystem.”