Ask Jeff Amerine about entrepreneurialism and the potential of creating jobs from university research and he becomes evangelical, passionately moving from one possibility to the next.
“There are so many things that happen every day, or that I learn about every day, where I stop and say, ‘Yeah, that could be huge,’” Amerine explained during a lunch interview at Powerhouse Seafood and Grill.
Amerine is the relatively new chief – formally, the director of technology licensing – of Technology Ventures, a division of the University of Arkansas created to streamline the process of moving ideas out of the university’s research programs and into the economy.
He joined the university as a technology licensing officer in 2008 after an 18-year career as an executive and builder of technology businesses. He held senior leadership positions in seven startup ventures and three Fortune 500 companies and teaches entrepreneurship at the university’s Sam M. Walton College of Business. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor’s degree in physical science in 1984. He also holds a master’s degree in operations management from the UA, conferred in 2009.
“It’s something happening every day that could change our world in a big way. People just see a campus here with a lot of buildings … but potentially groundbreaking research is happening every day on this campus,” Amerine said.
What are some of the big ideas?
There is a new process that could “help tremendously” in the treatment of osteoporosis.
The Picasolar group has developed an “unprecedented way” to vastly improve the efficiency of solar panels and lower the cost. One aspect of the process uses less silver. Amerine said solar energy is not a dominant source of U.S. energy, but the Picasolar method could soon be “a quality part of an overall energy plan.”
A bigger energy impact is likely to come from Nat Gas Solutions, according to Amerine. A group of finance majors are behind the project that would essentially allow users of compressed natural gas vehicles to fill up at home. The technology – which isn’t completely developed – “significantly reduces” the fill up time, Amerine said.
“Earlier, when I said there are some huge things happening, this is one of those,” he said.
Amerine said Arkansas political leaders, the business community and the university system have worked well to support efforts that attempt to commercialize research. For example, the Fund for Arkansas’ Future and the Natural State Angels have helped with provide start-up seed funding to numerous ventures.
But two primary issues that could limit the potential of Arkansas research or cause the research result in companies and jobs out of Arkansas are the lack of early-stage venture capital and the lack of engineering talent.
The two venture groups mentioned earlier have helped with funding in the $100,000 to $3 million range, but helping some of these companies get past the “seed round” with upwards of $25 million is a necessity.
“You’ve got to be able to do that (provide larger venture capital investments) to keep them in Arkansas,” Amerine explained, adding that an important part of his job is to keep the new research-generated jobs in Arkansas.
He is confident Arkansas will have a state-focused venture capital fund that can write the big checks.
“We just have to have the will and belief that we can do this. … And it will be through force of will, but we’ve got to do this for the good of this region and the state economy,” Amerine said. “If we solve this, then I don’t see us having a ceiling” on economic development through commercializing research.
FROM SUCCESS TO SIGNIFICANCE
And just like the impact of Wal-Mart Stores, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt, commercialized research will create a cycle in which success feeds success. Amerine said this will especially be true of the entrepreneurs of today if they are “provided an exit so they can invest in the next big thing.” He said today’s entrepreneurs and scientists are builders rather than sustainers. The system Amerine hopes to foster will allow the builders to cash out and move on to the next project.
“That will put money in the hands of people who have proven they are motivated to do this … and they will then make the investments in the next big idea company that will change the world and our region,” Amerine said.
Another aspect of entrepreneurial success, especially in Northwest Arkansas, is difficult for Amerine to quantify. He calls it the “special sauce,” and it helps entrepreneurs in the 18- to 35-year-old demographic go from being successful to being significant.
“The people in this area, they really want to help the other guy or the other gal be a success. … They are really unselfish in that way. That’s the special sauce in this area that I don’t see on the East Coast or the West Coast or almost anywhere else,” Amerine said.