Ethernet Inventor Backs Innovation Grant Program at UT Austin to Accelerate Professor-Led Startup Activity

Bob and Robyn Metcalfe at the Innovation Center’s Startup Studio at UT Austin.

By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Professor-led startups at the University of Austin at Texas just got a big boost in grant funding this week.

Bob Metcalfe, director of the Innovation Center at UT and professor of innovation, and Robyn Metcalfe, director of Food+City at UT, donated $100,000 through their Metcalfe Family Foundation to support Innovation Grants.

It’s a case of putting their money where their passion lies.

Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet, co-founder of 3Com and a faculty member of the Cockrell School of Engineering for six years, has been a huge proponent for spinning out startups from research being done at the university. He has led the Longhorn Startup program with Joshua Baer, founder of Capital Factory, to instill entrepreneurial skills in undergraduates.

For the past few years, Metcalfe has shifted his focus to helping professors commercialize their successful research.

Robyn Metcalfe has also led Food+City, formerly the Food Lab, at UT for the past six years. The organization publishes online and through an annual print magazine. It also hosts events and an annual Food+City Challenge Prize with $50,000 in prizes.

“We’ve had a family foundation for some years supporting higher education, and Robyn and I are now immersed in startup activity at UT. We see it as the obvious way to get successful research results to market,” Metcalfe said.

While professors can get money for research, funds aren’t available to commercialize that research, Metcalfe said. The Innovation Center grants bridges the gap between research and commercialization, he said.

On Wednesday night, both attended the monthly Startup Studio on the 10th floor of the Ernest Cockrell Engineering building to watch three professors pitch their technology. The Innovation Center has held these studios for five years showcasing the work of 135 professors to date. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and WeWork sponsor the monthly events.

The Innovation Grants, which range from $5,000 to $50,000, help professors assess and advance the “commercializability” of their technology, Metcalfe said.

In addition to the Metcalfe Family Foundation gift, the Innovation Center also received $100,000 gift from Fidelity Investments, a $10,000 gift from Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, a national law firm based in Milwaukee, Wisc., and a $5,000 gift from Nokia Bell Labs.

The goal is to raise $2 million for Innovation Grants annually and to fund 24 protostartups a year, Metcalfe said.

“Protostartups is a word we invented to describe a wide range of early startup development stages,” according to a news statement from Metcalfe. “We expect that as protostartups mature, they will incorporate, license technologies, raise additional research funding, raise venture funding, recruit personnel, develop products, sell products, record revenue, and move off campus, not necessarily in that order.”

The Innovation Center works with other organizations within the UT startup ecosystem including the Austin Technology Incubator, Office of Technology Commercialization, Texas Venture Labs, Dell Medical School’s Texas Health Catalyst program and the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program.

The Innovation Center has already awarded two grants — both to mechanical engineering professors. Luis Sentis received $40,000 for his robotics startup Apptronik, which makes actuators, the motors controlling robotic movement. Richard Crawford, who runs nVariate, a software design startup, received $20,000.

“Last spring, Professor Sentis came to us and demonstrated the revolutionary actuator, and Bob helped him identify the path to the market, Louise Epstein, managing director of the Innovation Center, said in UT News story. The gifts to the Innovation Grants fund are critical to bridging the gap to commercialization for these startups, Epstein said.

For more information, contact Louise Epstein at Louise.Epstein@utexas.edu about making a tax deductible gift for the Innovation Grants.

Correction: this article has been updated to clarify the type of funding provided.

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