Recruiting Talent for University Startups: Continuing the Conversation

jtestai /  Oct. 08, 2019


This summer, OUP hosted a webinar on Recruiting Talent for University Startups. Ahmet-Hamdi Cavusoglu, Director at the Academic Venture Exchange (AVX), Mike Psarouthakis, Director of the University of Michigan Venture Center, and Hazel Mulhare, Head of Talent at Oxford Sciences Innovation, discussed their respective programs and started the conversation about best practices for recruiting top talent to startups rooted in university research. OUP received a multitude of follow-up questions, so we reconnected with the webinar panelists to continue the conversation. The participants’ statements below have been edited for clarity and length.

Our interviewees from left to right: Ahmet-Hamdi Cavusoglu of Academic Venture Exchange (AVX), Mike Psarouthakis of University of Michigan, Hazel Mulhare of Oxford Sciences Innovation.

What recommendations do you have for finding talent associated with start-ups outside of major start-up regions?

Hamdi: One of the challenges for universities outside of the entrepreneurial hot spots is thinking how to physically connect with that talent. I think early virtual teams are fine, especially pre-funding, pre-incorporation.

Hazel: It is much easier for senior people to relocate, because they have probably been waiting for this technology to be developed. We often hear from executives this is the next iteration of a technology that they have been so immersed in for their whole career, but it still needs to be a compelling proposition to move. The best people will need to be convinced. These people will always have options, and you should be the most exciting option.

Mike: Partnerships are key to finding talent. We actively encourage our startups to work with us, investors, and recruiters, and become heavy smart users of LinkedIn. While the obvious talent centers on the coasts can be areas to find people, searching regionally has been extremely impactful for many startups in Ann Arbor.

How do you work with alumni networks to source talent? Are there alumni networks for large companies that would also be resources?

Hazel: We post positions on the McKinsey alumni network that all of their alumni and existing staff have access to. McKinsey partners will also send us referrals, and they also have someone who coordinates their alumni career services as well, which is very unusual. To the best of my knowledge, I do not know other companies that have that.

Mike: We are currently exploring ways to expand this effort at U-M, through expanded Mentor and EIR programs, Alumni Angel Investor networks, and partnering with regional U-M alumni groups. Working with corporate alumni networks is also on our radar, but we are currently concentrating on our effort to better engage with U-M alumni.

Can you discuss the journey from identifying an entrepreneur to partnering?

Hamdi: There have been positive successes when founders start socializing with potential entrepreneurs a few months into a proof-of-concept award. This helps de-risk the science a bit more to investors. Usually, it is good to perform these experiments in parallel with the entrepreneurs or co-founders that you want to work with.

Hazel: A PhD student, postdoc, or academic can lead the first two years of a company developing technical milestones. In my ideal world, 6-12 months before the company spins-out they are developing a plan on the team structure and how to bring someone to the board or team who feels like a founder alongside the academics.

Talent is a limited resource. How do you see talent being built/educated to increase the pool, particularly to have more A-level talent?

Hamdi: There are certainly some skills that can be developed. One such nuanced skill is conflict resolution. An entrepreneur of an academic spinout needs to realize the founder is multitasking all their academic responsibilities. Occasionally, the ball gets dropped. In response, the entrepreneur needs to politely reach out again, listen, understand, and work with the professor.

Hazel: OSI believes in emerging leaders 100%. It is quite common for our companies to have CEOs where it is their first time around. We will suggest that they have a hands-on chairman. That said, there needs to be a balance between experience and potential in the executive team, in the board, and in the company itself.

What are the main pieces of advice you have for an institution looking to create its own talent sourcing program?

Hazel: Find the stars who have not thought about this as a potential avenue. I have the practice of asking the entrepreneurial ecosystem to introduce me to the best people that they know. I don’t care if they are happy in their job; I don’t care if they live in Timbuktu. If they are great, then please introduce us, because we are always looking for future portfolio talent. Headhunters usually want to find the gems who aren’t necessarily looking for a job.

Mike: Make talent a top priority tied with impactful support resources and funding (grant and investments). While finding great talent is typically harder than securing funding for startups, the two are inextricably linked in our view. Make sure there is a solid CRM system in place to more easily track and update. That system must be able to pull information from LinkedIn to stay somewhat current.

How important is previous start-up experience and how important is domain expertise?

Hamdi: You don’t need perfect domain expertise, but you must show domain depth. You will be working with the scientist who spent at least 5 years, if not several decades, pushing forward this technology. If you can’t show that you have spent many years pushing tech into this, or a related space, you are going to have a hard time building trust with the scientist.

Hazel: Everyone must have their first start-up experience at some point. It is a difficult transition from industry into a start-up environment. Ideally, the potential candidate will have demonstrated the creativity, flexible, and tenacity needed in a start-up in their roles within a large corporation. These candidates are the ones that are ready for this transition, since they have been pursuing difficult challenges their whole career.

How do you measure the success of your program?

Hamdi: For AVX, I count success by the inputs, outputs, and the stages in between. The inputs for me are the total number of ventures, how many new ones have entered the pipeline in the past month, how much new talent has been introduced to us, and then how many connections have we made. Numbers-wise, one out of every 27-30 teams find someone on AVX that matches with them.

Mike: We currently count success by the number of viable startups launched through our office that have at least a one key business role filled and practical awareness of the talent gaps that need to be filled in the near and mid-term future. We are working on developing other talent metrics, that will likely include numbers of engagements with people, awareness of openings in U-M startups, touches with people and companies that resulted in filing a role.

Additional Comments:

Hamdi: Joining a start-up is creating your own hero’s journey; it is like the Fellowship of the Ring. You are bringing these people together and figuring out there is this big journey ahead. We know what the end goal needs to be to succeed, but do not know the path yet. It is going to take time for us to discover our own characters, and how we build a collective to go forward and fight together.

Mike: We are exploring ways to expand support of the communities’ entrepreneurial ecosystem, which we see as a way to increase talent and investment density around the University. The benefits of this activity will not only help university startups find talent, but we believe will help the University attract more entrepreneurial-minded faculty, students and staff.

Hamdi: A lot of investors will give you money after they realize how they can give you advice and how you react to that advice. They do not like to see a single data point; they like to see a graph where you continue to improve.

Hazel: With CEOs, there are early indicators of success: Have they been able to raise follow-on capital? Have they been able to hire other great people? Are they communicating well with their shareholders and board? Are they building a high-performance work culture? And do they take ultimate responsibility when stuff goes wrong? Do you think everyone is scoring super highly on all those metrics initially? No, you need to give people a grace period of 6-12 months, and after 12 months, you have a very strong indication if they can do the job.

Hamdi: There are other skills outside of the academic realm that need to be brought in at the early stage. A lot of them are a mix of business strategy, execution, and operations. Very few academics have had experience in finding manufacturing partners, recruiting the first few critical hires, managing payroll and legal, and figuring out relationships with lawyers and banks. While those are small things that shouldn’t be too hard to learn, learning it the first time around is hard.


Thanks to Hamdi, Hazel and Mike for sharing their insights into the challenges of recruiting startup talent. For more information on university startup topics, please visit the OUP YouTube channel and Research Realized, an OUP podcast on advancing university innovation.