Director of Strategic Initiatives, Columbia Technology Ventures
Executive Director, PowerBridgeNY
JIM ALOISE BRINGS A UNIQUE VIEWPOINT TO THE CLEAN ENERGY BUSINESS INCUBATOR PROGRAM.
A CEBIP Advisory Board member since 2016, Aloise is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Columbia Technology Ventures, Columbia University’s tech-transfer office, and the Executive Director of PowerBridgeNY – so he’s knee-deep in multiple efforts to usher early-stage companies into the larger commercial world.
His work with CEBIP, however, involves some subtle but important differences.
Whereas PowerBridgeNY works with university-level startups struggling to break out of laboratories at Stony Brook University, Columbia University, NYU, Cornell Tech, Brookhaven National Laboratory and the City University of New York, CEBIP works with companies that are usually further along the commercialization road.
Not so at CEBIP, according to Aloise, who finds the program’s more advanced nature invigorating.
“CEBIP companies have been through some of the learning processes PowerBridgeNY would take them through,” he notes. “It’s neat to see teams that tend to be that next step further along.”
A related set of activities at Columbia include the Clean Tech Venture Exchange (CVX) and the Life Science Venture Exchange (LSVX), both functions of Columbia Technology Ventures. The CVX, open to companies across New York State, and the LSVX, focused on New York City and other downstate regions, share the same general mission – fostering startups, in this case by networking them with experienced senior-executive types. CVX targets Clean Tech startups coming from not only programs like PowerBridgeNY and CEBIP, but anywhere in the state.
Still, the similarities between CEBIP and his Columbia University-based efforts, particularly PowerBridgeNY, are undeniable.
PowerBridgeNY, which leverages $10 million in funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, has completed five cohorts and is well into its sixth; to date, it has funded more than 30 projects to the tune of $3.5 million, while providing a boot-camp-like commercialization crash course.
To qualify, candidate companies must have IP “on file” at one of the six feeder institutions and be approved by “outside judges.” Once they’re in, they undergo “lean startup” training, according to Aloise, and are mandated to connect with a minimum of 100 potential customers – a strict requirement designed to help them truly understand the market they’re entering.
“It’s very informative,” Aloise notes. “They understand how their technology works, but once they get out there and talk to people, they start to understand what they didn’t know – how their technology really applies, what the market really wants. And it’s usually different from what they imagined.”
This is a common problem for tech startups, according to the business-strategy veteran, who says participants often “come away from the customer interviews realizing they were wrong, and change their approach based on that learning.”
For example, a startup may boast a technology it believes will bring down customers’ costs – but may subsequently learn that reliability or access to some particular function, not necessarily cost, is the customer’s biggest pain point.
“It opens them up to different markets than they thought about, maybe even changes their initial idea about the best way to come to market,” Aloise says.
After completing their interviews, participants fill out a “Business Model Canvas” that helps them determine the best path to sustainability. They finally graduate when they meet the technical and business milestones PowerBridgeNY established at the start – these change from company to company, Aloise notes, as does the amount of time it takes each company to complete the process.
“Most companies do (finish the program),” he adds. “Even making a no-go decision and deciding not to pursue it – we’d consider that a success. They have come to a reasonable conclusion based on their learning, realizing the market is not calling for the kind of solutions they thought they had.”
More than one PowerBridgeNY graduate has gone on to become a CEBIP client – Aloise points proudly to 2017 startup Allied Microbiata as a prime example – and according to the Advisory Board member, it’s always exciting to see that progress in action.
“CEBIP helps me have a broader view of what’s going on in clean-tech,” Aloise says. “There’s always something going on with the teams at CEBIP. They’re making progress, for the most part, and if sometimes they aren’t, then the Advisory Board provides feedback and helps them sort through that.”
Aloise, who has 15-plus years of industrial and academic experience in technology commercialization and patent licensing under his belt and an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management hanging on the wall (alongside his Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from New Mexico State University and a Bachelor’s degree in Optics from the University of Rochester), was personally recruited to the CEBIP Advisory Board by Executive Director David Hamilton.
“We’ve always had a relationship with Dave through the NYSERDA clean-tech family,” he notes. “We run into each other at various events and we’ve really gotten to know each other playing in this clean-tech startup space.”
Joining the board was one of his best professional decisions, he says, especially at this “exciting time for clean-tech innovation, with so much opportunity out there and so many great ideas.”
“There’s a real need for programs like CEBIP and PowerBridgeNY,” Aloise says. The innovators really know their technologies, but they need help and guidance understanding what the market really needs.
“Talking to customers, refining their idea of what a product should look like before they bring it to market – these things are usually outside of the innovator’s comfort zone,” he adds. “That’s how people wind up going to market with something nobody wants.
“Both of these programs really help steer them toward the market’s actual needs – and increase their chances of success.”