In early 2022, OUP hosted a webinar on EIR/MIR Programs at Universities. Due to the overwhelming interest in the topic, we wanted to highlight two additional programs to offer perspectives from other universities. We spoke with Case Cortese, Director for Innovation, New Ventures & Entrepreneurship, to discuss Caltech’s entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) program, and Mark VanderZyl, Associate Director, Startup Advancement, to learn more about Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ mentor-in-residence (MIR) program. The interviewees’ statements below have been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about your EIR/MIR program.
Case: We have an EIR program that is comprised of two full time employees (FTE) – one in the physical sciences and one in the life sciences. They are Caltech employees, and we pay them. They report to our Chief Innovation Officer, so they are members of the tech transfer office. They regularly integrate with our licensing team; they come to our weekly team meeting that is specifically focused on startups. During these meetings, they provide updates about which Caltech entrepreneurs they have spoken with and introductions that they made to VCs for proto-startups – our startups that have not launched yet.
Mark: We currently have 7 MIRs. They are expected to put in 10-15 hours a month. I facilitate their new introductions and keep track of their engagements. The MIRs are not in licensing or startup support; they work for the Tech Ventures office to help identify promising projects to move along. These could end up being licenses, sponsored research agreements, or startups. Once a quarter, we have a group mentor luncheon where we share expectations. Many of them have been our mentors for a long time now – 5 years or more.
What is the typical annual compensation for the EIR/MIRs?
Case: The EIRs are Caltech employees, so they receive the standard employee benefits package. These folks tend to be well paid, and we are an academic institution, so how we incentive them and compensate them can be a challenge. We offer compensation as competitively as we are able. Funding for the EIR program started as a philanthropic gift. Since the initial gift, we are looking at ways to keep the positions funded on a sustainable, ongoing basis. We recently launched our seed fund and partnered with an outside fund, Wilson Hill Ventures. As part of that partnership, Wilson Hill Ventures provides some support to our EIR program. We are also engaged in ongoing efforts to raise additional funding to ideally endow the EIR positions.
Mark: The mentors receive a small financial stipend from us. It is not a salary. They are not employees of the university, so they do not receive any benefits. Therefore, they sign an NDA.
What are your requirements for MIR/EIRs? What characteristics do you look for?
Mark: They could be former CEOs or subject matter experts from industry; they just need to have an expertise that could benefit our inventors or startups. They do not just focus on startups. They help a faculty inventor identify technology that can be commercialized, and the steps needed to get their technology to a more commercial-ready stage.
In addition to the MIRs, we are envisioning having other advisors – people with important skill sets who may not have the bandwidth for 15 hours a month. For example, someone who has taken 2-3 drugs all the way through the regulatory process. That expertise narrows your candidate pool while also trying to find somebody who has the appetite and time for mentoring without a financial incentive. It may be a younger, working individual who is able to commit less time but could be quite helpful to our inventors.
Case: Our EIRs are intended to be deep tech entrepreneurs who are in-between startups – someone who is on the front lines but just exited a company or had an acquisition. They are looking for somewhere to land. I would argue on the life science side, domain expertise in clinical and regulatory approval processes can be just as important as actual founder experience – the knowledge about what regulatory hurdles you need to overcome is significantly important. So, whether you call the person an entrepreneur-in-residence or executive-in-residence, the point is you want someone with enough domain expertise to be able to advise our faculty and student entrepreneurs on the steps and milestones necessary to commercialize a product, help them map those steps, and effectively articulate the plan to potential investors. We also want people who have a network of investor contacts and domain experts, to augment our office’s network, all to widen the pool of expertise from which our startups may benefit.
How do you source your MIR/EIRs?
Case: For all three of our cohorts, we have found our EIRs just through our own networking. We have a job posting, and there are plenty of people that apply. We have never hired anyone ‘cold’ through the job posting itself, though. It has always been someone who had a connection to Caltech – either alumni or someone who had done a Caltech startup before. It can take some serendipitous timing and luck to find someone in-between startups or looking to transition from pharma that has current, relevant expertise with a network to help these companies launch.
Mark: Primarily, they are alumni or founders from Hopkins startups. My understanding is, over the years, we have had a lot of people approach us. I think there is a cachet to say that you are a MIR at one of these universities. So, they come to us, but they are not always the right fit. Baltimore does not have a high concentration of exited entrepreneurs or former investors, so we have been trying to build out that network.
What is the vetting process for potential EIR/MIRs?
Mark: We check references. Then, we have them met our staff. What we are planning to pilot is a 90-day trial period of curated engagements with set expectations and outcomes. My boss keeps saying we would like to date before we get married. Rather than put someone on a 12-month mentor engagement, we want to run a trial.
Case: We do interview the EIRs and have them interact with some select faculty. But we usually know the candidates well, as they’ve all been individuals known to our own network, so we usually have significant word of mouth references to call upon as well.
How are you diversifying your MIR/EIR ranks?
Case: We are mindful about DEI and actively look for those opportunities. Having said that, we are looking for a unicorn fit – someone with good technical knowledge base, fundraising and commercial domain experience, and who also has the emotional quotient (EQ) to effectively interface with our faculty and students. We were very lucky that our two most recent EIRs who fit the bill were both women. We were happy their backgrounds also supported that diversity aspect too.
Mark: We are having a concerted push towards DEI. Historically, white males have been overrepresented in terms of funding and startups, so it does limit your diverse candidate pool if you are looking for someone who has 20-30 years of experience. In an ideal world, we would have more diversity. We want our mentors to be very relatable, not only in a technical expertise. That adds to the comfort level for our faculty and startups. In our outreach to alumni and people in industry, it has been front of mind. We are thinking about it all the time, even if we are not explicitly stating it.
Given our new “hybrid” normal, do you have a greater ability for your MIR/EIRs to be remote?
Case: Would we have one that is totally virtual? I am not sure about that, because Caltech is a very high-touch place. Our professors like service, and they want to be able to meet in-person. But our EIRs are allowed to run their own schedule. We have always let our EIRs work at least partially remote.
Mark: A lot of our mentors have done well for themselves over the years, so they may winter elsewhere. Geographical proximity isn’t the most important thing. In an ideal world, we would like in-person interactions from our mentors. People talk about “walking the halls” – literally being on campus and meeting the PIs in their labs. There is something to that, and we would like to get back to that. But it is not a requirement.
Do MIR/EIRs frequently get attached to a project and become a part of the startup?
Case: Two of our past EIRs have left for Caltech startups. When they do take an active role in a company, they leave their EIR position. When we started the program, we were envisioning two-year terms. With the seed fund, we are okay if the EIRs stay for the full length of the five-year investment window – basically, the EIR is managing deal flow for the fund. There is a significant amount of institutional memory that they can ramp up within a year – they get into most of the entrepreneurial labs and find out what technologies are in the hopper that are going to launch out. They are really hitting their stride within two years. So, in this instance where the EIRs are working so closely with the launch of our seed fund, we’ve been ok with the longer term.
Mark: I know a few have been on the boards of startups, but I don’t know if anyone is actively looking to be a full-time CEO. At least, not the folks that we have right now. They could; I think if an opportunity presented itself, we would say, “go do it.” If the mentors were going to be full-time somewhere, they may not have the bandwidth to be part of our program. It is not a common outcome, but they are able to.
Who manages the program, and what percent of their job is the management of it?
Case: It does not run itself, because the EIRs need administrative help internally. I organize behind the scenes; I play more of an operational role in the EIR program and the seed fund. Our EIRs also have some administrative support for scheduling, events, etc. But I would not say it is a full FTE. It is up to the EIRs to do the outreach on campus. I may make a bunch of introductory calls, but the EIR takes the ball and runs with it. The EIRs are self-starters by nature, so they quickly find projects and start mentoring the teams.
Mark: The MIR program is one of my primary responsibilities, but it’s not my only commitment. A lot of the mentors told me that I should not be concerned with keeping them busy or finding them introductions; they are very self-sufficient and proactive. But it is a part of my job. Other individuals in our office will ask me to connect an inventor with a mentor. I then make those introductions. We also have a few of our mentors with recurring office hours. Teams can sign up for those; I just promote the opportunity.
How do you manage conflicts of interest (COI)?
Mark: We have not had many conflicts arise. The role that we want them to fill is supporting the commercialization of university research for the greatest impact. If they have some other commitment that would preclude them from that, they are not right for the role. Per the NDA, we want people to be able to talk about their research in a very candid way without fear of making a public disclosure. They need to be able to have that level of candor and security to discuss their challenges.
Case: Since the EIRs are Caltech employees, that means they are also subject to the same COI issues as any Caltech employee. Just like any other OTTCP staff, they cannot take equity in the startup that our office helps launch. Past EIRs who have had an opportunity to take stock in companies, usually because they went above and beyond to help, waited until they left the EIR position to take any compensation. But it is an ongoing subject of discussion, because someone providing an early-stage company value would customarily be compensated with an equity piece of that company. So, we understand that is something an EIR might like to be able to receive.
What are some metrics that you utilize to evaluate your program? Are there performance metrics for MIR/EIRs?
Mark: We rigorously track how involved our mentors are. Every month, the MIRs report to us – not only how many engagements they had, or how many hours they spend. But specifically, what PI, what date, for how long, and what was discussed. I enter that into our CRM.
Case: The EIR program has gone over really well on campus; the faculty have responded extremely positively to having a working entrepreneur on speed dial. We have found that a lot of other programs – workshops, informational sessions, and office hours – do not work well at Caltech. We don’t have the critical mass for that kind of general programming. Our faculty like specific feedback and support for their technologies and questions when they need it; they do not want it before or after, but right now. It works having these EIRs embedded in the labs, working with grad students, knowing every little detail, and helping them launch the company.
What is your greatest pain point in facilitating your EIR/MIR program?
Case: Funding is always a challenge. The administrative support that the EIRs need has added to the burden of our lean administrative team. If the EIRs are doing a good job, they are non-stop calendaring. They are mentoring teams, introducing them to customers for customer discovery, and connecting them to potential supply chain partners. These are entrepreneurs; they are used to being CEOs. So, they do expect all the administration work for meetings to be taken care of.
Mark: Knowing the new inventors or startups that should be utilizing our mentors and making those curated introductions. I see a lot of recurring engagements with our mentors, and I know there is a pipeline of new mentees. But I am at the mercy of my colleagues telling me when someone needs helps.
If you could have three wishes for the EIR/MIR program, what would they be?
Case: First is secured funding for the position. The second would be always having two EIRs – one in life science and another in physical science. Third is at least a 1/2 FTE for administrative support. That is basically what we have had to carve out. If I could add to the first wish, it would also be a discretionary pot of money – say, $50K a year – for the EIRs to utilize databases and subscriptions to help source information that is outside their core expertise. A project may need it on a case-by-case basis. An example is a market or competitive landscape analysis. This is not something our office normally has funding to provide.
Mark: My three wishes are three different mentors in three different technology areas. Adding three more people to our network, who make a real impact, would be meaningful for me. One of the reasons I came here 8 years ago is that the potential is very large at a place with a lot of research funding and competent researchers. We have just had to build the support mechanism to connect these inventors with people in industry to take their ideas and run with them.