What Will the Future Look Like for Innovations in Science?


Tim Lavengood is on Ask an Innovator today talking with us about innovations in science. We talk about how the Technology Innovation Center will provide a place for scientists to truly own their own intellectual property and what that means for inventing and the world at large.

We talk about the importance of mentorship in the startup space. Tim and Josh discuss how this surge of scientists creating and innovating will mirror the technology revolution of the ’80s. Check it out – full transcript below!

Connect with Ask an Innovator.

About Technology Innovation Center

After 30 years incubating hundreds of digital startups in Chicago, Technology Innovation Center is shifting its model to serve the hard sciences. Like the digital revolution of the 1980s, energy, materials, medical devices, agriculture, genetics and other sciences are entering a phase of entrepreneurial revolution. The toolkit for science is becoming faster, cheaper and smarter by the day, drastically reducing the barrier to entry for young, independent scientists to create IP of their own. Moore’s Law has come to the sciences and Technology Innovation Center is in on the ground floor supporting the first generation of true scientist entrepreneurs.

Connect with Tim

Email Him
The Incubator

Full Transcript with Tim Lavengood

Josh Barker: [00:00:13] Welcome to Ask an Innovator. Today I’ve got with me at Tim Lavengood. Welcome, Tim. Really appreciate you being here.

Tim Lavengood: [00:00:18] Glad to be here!

Josh Barker: [00:00:20] Awesome. So Tim is the Executive Director at Technology Innovation Center, is that right?

Tim Lavengood: [00:00:26] That is correct. 

Josh Barker: [00:00:28] Can you give a little bit of background of yourself and a little background about Technology Innovation Center?

Tim Lavengood: [00:00:33] Well, I’ve been working as the Executive Director for quite a few years, so those are kind of the same thing. We are a technology-based business incubator that’s actually been in operation since the eighties for about 30 years. 31 years. And we have worked with several hundred different kinds of startups over the years providing space and services and networking to help innovation-based companies get off the ground.

Josh Barker: [00:01:03] Awesome.  And I’m reading on here, 25,000 square feet. That’s quite a bit for 30 to 50 technology-based startups. Is that right?

Tim Lavengood: [00:01:13] That was the case. We’re in the process now of making the transition to the hard sciences. There were reasons for that and we are working on a build-out of laboratory space in Northbrook, one of the other suburbs here.

Josh Barker: [00:01:35] I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. Can you give a little bit more details about  your transition to the hard sciences?

Tim Lavengood: [00:01:40] Yes.  We’ve been around since the eighties and  we came in right around the same time as, you know, the beginning of the, uh, original.com boom.

 I think because of that perspective, I am seeing very similar circumstances now in the hard sciences: in new materials, in life science, in energy that we saw in the eighties in information technology. And I think it is now time for us, I think we’re most valuable in dealing with now this just emerging generation of scientist entrepreneurs.

To me, the key is the tools. And just as in the eighties the tools for information technology got dramatically and rapidly, cheaper, smaller and smaller, and that results in entrepreneurship. As opposed to people who, because of the expense and the expertise required to use the tools, have to go to work for larger organizations.

And I think we are now seeing just emerging the dawn of an age of the independent entrepreneurial scientist. And I think the implications of that actually make the information technology revolution seem small by comparison.

Josh Barker: [00:03:07] Yeah, that makes sense. So before you’d have all these scientists really not  able to afford the equipment, the space, all of the different things needed for true innovation to really happen. And now, you’re  essentially providing that space, you’re providing the equipment,  loaning it out to them, so to speak, for kind of a monthly cost.

Tim Lavengood: [00:03:27] Yes. We’re redesigning, we’re creating what we’re calling a workstation  for a wet laboratory, and what we’re basically trying to do is allow scientists to generate valid data.

That proves their concept in circumstances where they’re not working for a big corporation that’s going to own everything. Approximately, now more than 95% of all scientific intellectual property by economic value, is owned by organizations with valuations over a billion dollars. So it’s the most concentrated asset class in the developed world and that is just about to break wide open now,  in my view. It’s a profound trend that I think we’re in the forefront of.

Josh Barker: [00:04:19] Sure. Awesome. I’d love to hear some examples of the different companies that are doing  innovative things that might not otherwise be doing that if they weren’t in the position they’re in now.

Tim Lavengood: [00:04:32] A company that started with us in 2015  called Hazel Technologies. They came to us, graduate students at Northwestern, with $6,000 they got from a business plan competition. They were working on producing a material, a nanoscale powder that actually controls the ethylene, the gas concentration that causes fruits and vegetables to ripen and then to spoil.

By controlling this without additives, without GMO, they’re able to extend the shelf life of produce. That company was able, because of the tools, because of our environment, to get started and generate data that proved the effectiveness of that material with $6,000 upfront to pay rent for six months.

This meant that as this data was generated, they owned it as opposed to what would have happened if they were at a large company. Now that company is worth, as I understand it, about $30 million and they’re doing great. Last year, they handled over 200 million tons of fresh produce.

And so they were able to do this because they had the training, they had the skills, but they were able to do this as entrepreneurs.

Josh Barker: [00:06:00] That’s amazing.

Tim Lavengood: [00:06:01] Another company was designing a peritoneal kidney dialysis device, and again, was able to get into our facilities and generate the data necessary to raise, I believe, a million dollars to complete the protocol and under conditions where they owned it.

Josh Barker: [00:06:21] That’s awesome. Yeah, it’s a lot like when software became more approachable, right? When you started to get this whole new wave of software’s the thing and software engineering became a discipline and a practice because it was the personalized computers. Right? It sounds like the equipment was a lot more accessible, and that’s what it sounds like you’re really doing for the hard sciences is you’re really making it so that the equipment is a lot more accessible versus only at huge facilities. 

Tim Lavengood: [00:06:48] It’s cheaper and it’s smarter. There’s a pipette robot that can run some of your wet chemistry that costs $5,000. There is a device for producing a pharmaceutical that sits on a desk. There are gene sequencers now that are desktop and cost $20,000.

10 years ago, there were five places on earth that could do gene sequencing and they were all giant research institutions. Those are the kinds of things. It’s basically, Moore’s law has come to the science. And fundamentally what Moore’s law is, is better, cheaper, smarter tools, and that  equals entrepreneurship,

Josh Barker: [00:07:31] That’s amazing. That’s awesome. How does one join this facility and how many people do you have in it? How many startups?

Tim Lavengood: [00:07:37] Well,  we’re in a flux,  we can’t have the same number of startups that you can have in some of those WeWork type spaces, obviously, because the equipment still is much more extensive.

But we’re working now with about four companies, and as I say, we’re building out space. As we speak. As a matter of fact, I’m going out there tomorrow, and so we’re really in a launch mode right now for this new version of incubation that we’re about to set out.

Josh Barker: [00:08:05] Okay. Now, when is this? When are you guys looking to launch it?

Tim Lavengood: [00:08:08] Well, we hope to be able to open the doors this spring, and I’m in discussions right now with Northwestern. One of the differences also with the sciences is that because science is so bound to large institutions and organizations, in a way, it means scientists only come from a few large companies and they come from universities.

They come from hospitals, they come from federal laboratories. So actually the marketing and outreach to find these people are in a lot of ways, much easier because in the whole Chicago area, there are really only seven, eight places where scientists congregate. And,  so right now, I think our main focus is Northwestern medical school and the engineering and science schools up here in Evanston.

Josh Barker: [00:09:01] So one of the things I’m really curious about is a little bit of a background of it. How did you end up coming to this thought?  Obviousl y, you have to have been in this space, you have to have had some kind of background to recognize a problem in the industry. How did you come to this idea or discovery of this problem?

Tim Lavengood: [00:09:20] Well, there are two reasons, two basic things. One is that because we’ve been dealing with innovation-based startups for so long, we were able to recognize, I think a bit of this pattern that what was happening now in the sciences was so much like what was happening going back to the IBM two 86 or 86 computers for $4,000 then there were $2,000 and now, the device I’m talking with you on right now, it’s $200 and so when I started seeing, and I had learned, at least my perspective is that, again, for me, that toolkit is critical in what made the IP boom of entrepreneurship possible.

Then as the entrepreneurs come in, of course, they bring a totally different perspective and then the larger organizations that have all their preexisting operating procedures, goals, and objectives. Once you have these tools, you can have, rather than have an organization use innovation to promote its goals, you have, the innovation itself promotes the creation of the organization. And fundamentally that’s the difference. I think that’s what entrepreneurship brings to the table. When it’s enabled by the tools. I have learned that as a younger guy watching these software people and the HTML people in the early days, and even, you know, Archie and Veronica in the days before the world wide web.

Gradually, I noticed this consistent pattern was that these were people who have perfected the use of tools that hadn’t existed 10 years before, and they, therefore, were creating all these new possibilities to take information technology in a direction that IBM never would have done. That enabled me to see among the scientists and see going into laboratories and seeing what they’re able to do and seeing data being put online in real-time as opposed to the two years it took to go through peer review.

I was able to put those trends of how science is done and how science is enabled by the new equipment. To recognize that this is a lot the same, and to realize that it’s no longer in the sciences where you have to start out by assuming a million dollars, which until recently was the case, it’s just beginning to be not the case anymore. I don’t want to exaggerate. This is very early days, but as I say, Moore’s Law has arrived and five years from now, everything’s going to be smaller and cheaper and smarter. And you’re going to be able to generate valid data by yourself. And I just think that’s because we’ve lived it before.

We recognized it, I think, before other people, before even most scientists.

Josh Barker: [00:12:28] Sure. Now, going back to that, that refrigeration, keeping fruits and vegetables fresh for longer. Without that facility without the equipment, without all the stuff that’s provided, like what would you say that would cost?  Obviously it would cost a lot more because of the fact that they would have to be embedded in a larger organization.

I mean, in terms of cost and timeline, is that double, triple, quadruple?  What factor are we talking about of savings here  for someone in the hard sciences?

Tim Lavengood: [00:12:57] Well, the savings financially is actually, again, because we have, and we’re still in the process of redesigning the lab to create these very small workspaces.

They have a hood and a bench and a shared  water supply, deionized water, maybe a freezer  to enable scientists to come in real cheaply because the space is so much smaller. Laboratories typically are designed with one large user in mind. And so actually the lab, that’s one of the reasons we’re engaged in this build out. The laboratory we’re creating is very different and it’s going to be much more dense.

There’s a lot more hoods per square foot, and so we’re going to try and enable people to come into a small workstation for a thousand dollars a month. $1,200 a month. We’re not quite sure yet, but in that neighborhood, uh, that makes it possible for people to generate the data for a beta customer, a regulator, or an investor.

And that’s going to be our jobs to produce that intellectual property. It’s columns of numbers. That’s what we’re all about. And so we’re taking away all of the other standard operating procedures, all of the fixed operating costs that characterize a large organization so that you’re able to move faster and you are able to move more cheaply because you’re not covering an accounting department.  That Hazel Technologies that you were mentioning again, is a little unusual because they’re actually out there building a brand. A lot of what the scientists are doing, I think it should be proving their concept, and once they prove their concept, they create a liquidity event, they now have an asset.

And that asset can go to investors. And so many of them are not seeking to build the product and to market that product. The they are seeking to do basically the R&D for the larger players.

Josh Barker: [00:15:08] Sure. That makes sense.

Tim Lavengood: [00:15:10] Get their pay off when they sell it.

Josh Barker: [00:15:12] And speaking of that, a lot of times in coworking spaces, I know in Chicago, 1871 is a big one, is being able to take people from larger organizations and embed them alongside startups. There’s some kind of magic that happens there, right? There’s innovation and collaboration that happens between startups and large companies. They’re trying to do that by creating these innovation outposts. So one of the questions in my mind is, do you see that happening these large companies that or hard science companies putting people in this place that you’re describing as almost like an innovation outpost to partner with startups, to talk to them about what they’re doing?

Tim Lavengood: [00:15:50] Yes. I think one of the big differences, and this is again a lesson that we were able to learn, is in the early days , the peer group, the network is much more difficult to assemble, and I think we’re people who have the organizational experience to be able to do it.

Information technology now has a lot of what I call the been there done that mentors that people can meet and talk to. And a lot of people in large corporations also had experience in startups. And so there’s a blending there. But that took many, many years. A lot of the a, the angel investors seed fund people also do have the direct experience of knowing what it’s like to start up an IT-based company. There were very, very few experienced entrepreneurs in the sciences just as there were very few IT entrepreneurs in 1986 when this program started. Most of the money was coming from people who made their money in real estate and didn’t really understand what are the main reasons for that dot com boom.

The money and the innovators didn’t really understand one another, and so a lot of mistakes were made. That is the challenge. I think right now you’re going to college with professors in biology and chemical engineering that have no experience in entrepreneurship. Their colleagues have no experience in it.

Again, computer science went from being probably the single least entrepreneurial discipline in the eighties to perhaps the most entrepreneurial now. That took a generation for that mentoring and for that networking really to take root. And I think we’re one of the few organizations that knows how to do this in the early days.

Josh Barker: [00:17:48] Sure. That’s awesome. Yeah, and I could definitely see how that’d be a benefit. Normally you would not get as diverse of opinions. And you know, I’ve worked in many coworking spaces. It’s always a pleasure to meet diverse people. Listen to diverse opinions. To be able to take them and apply them directly to your work.

And so I could easily see how that would be a great benefit to not only having mentors but also having peers that are trying to create some hard science products and trying to get feedback or talk to people that are doing the same thing. So that seems like that would be also an added benefit.

Tim Lavengood: [00:18:23] One of the things that I think characterizes this stage is that a lot of these people, some of the examples I gave earlier, actually, as individuals, scientists that are thinking in these terms tend to think they’re alone. They’re not aware yet of this emerging. Some of the networking work that we’re launching right now is to encourage these people to meet. To get together and to realize they aren’t the only ones.

Some of these workspaces that you’re talking about and are able to take advantage of, we’re just in the early days of that occurring now. So I think that the networking is really crucially important. Because there are not professors, there are not colleagues. There’s not, you know, around the dinner table. There’s no family that has a scientific background and an understanding of the business building. Scientists are overwhelmingly employees at this point. Virtually 100%. And they own almost none of their work.

There is no other profession right now that contributes so fundamentally and so massively to society. They own so little of what they produce. And that’s what’s going to change. And once it changes the financial opportunities and the shifts in the marketing strategies are going to be really profound.

Josh Barker: [00:20:08] Yeah. Have you talked to anyone over mHUB in Chicago? It seems like they’re doing something…

Tim Lavengood: [00:20:15] They are similar. 

Josh Barker: [00:20:16] I was just going to say, yeah, they seem pretty similar.

Tim Lavengood: [00:20:19] We’re actually creating wet labs. This is going to be, in my view, a little more scientific.

We had another company, for example, that produced an aluminum alloy. They were able to do the microscopy that was required and they had furnaces for preparing their sample. It ‘s my view that we are going to be much more directly focused on people in the hard sciences than even the engineering and you know, the maker space kind of thing. 

And it’s that basic critical role of data.  We want to be the place where you can go under flexible terms of ownership and create valid scientific data. Not building things necessarily, but producing the data.

Josh Barker: [00:21:11] Yeah, that makes sense.  And so mHUB is more on the physical product side. Not necessarily hard science, but robotics, connected devices, sensors, that sort of thing. But yeah, you’re more on the hard science side.

[Check out our interview with mHUB Founder, Bill Fienup]

Tim Lavengood: [00:21:23] Yes. Yeah. And we actually have a sensor development project going on with us right now. It’s a sensor device for early detection of glaucoma.

Josh Barker: [00:21:34] Oh, nice. Awesome.

Tim Lavengood: [00:21:35] That’s a Northwestern spinoff.

Josh Barker: [00:21:37] Yeah. Well, we’re going to take a quick break. I’m going to go into, uh, the something called the innovation hot seat. So these are some questions that are just about you and love to know a little bit more about you. So I’m gonna rattle them off one by one. We’ll go through them.

Who is one person you would invite to dinner? Could be alive, could be where they’ve passed already.

Tim Lavengood: [00:22:02] Well, apropos of what we’re talking about, there’s an old economist sometimes called the entrepreneur’s economist, a German named Joseph Schumpeter, and anybody who hears this, I recommend you Google that and read the first couple chapters of his book called The Theory of Economic Development.

And I would really love to talk to him. I think way back in the thirties he had this figured out better than anybody has since of innovation and entrepreneurship in creating economic growth. 

Josh Barker: [00:22:33] Awesome. I’ll have to look him up.  I’m not too familiar with him, so I’ll,  I’ll look him up.

Tim Lavengood: [00:22:37] Very few people have ever heard of him but he’s profoundly important.

Josh Barker: [00:22:41] And then what is one thing you’d bring on a deserted Island with you? It can’t be a person.

Tim Lavengood: [00:22:46] Bring on a desert Island. Is this an Island I’d like to get off of or am I happy there?

Josh Barker: [00:22:57] I don’t know. You can make your own.

Tim Lavengood: [00:22:59] Well, I suppose I would want a mirror or some kind of signaling device because I would probably want to get off.

Josh Barker: [00:23:09] Makes sense. So what about, what’s your favorite book you’ve read?

Tim Lavengood: [00:23:20] My favorite book. Okay. I was always a fan of Mark Twain. Yeah. So Huck Finn was a good book.

Josh Barker: [00:23:34] Good classics. Mark Twain’s a good author back in the day. That’s good. Well, what about a favorite place you’ve traveled and why? 

Tim Lavengood: [00:23:43] I used to do a lot of work in Japan, and I found that to be a combination of being both very familiar and very foreign at the same time. It’s familiar because it is a very middle-class place. It’s the sort of thing that we understand. I’ve been to other countries, like Latin America where living standards are very, very different. At the same time, culturally, it is so unusual compared to the United States. I think that juxtaposition of feeling very much at home and at the same time seeing things that are so totally different, I found very interesting.

Josh Barker: [00:24:23] Sure. That makes sense. I’ve never been to Japan. That seems like a nice place to go.

Tim Lavengood: [00:24:27] Oh, it’s great, it’s very friendly. Culturally, they are very, very different. Their view of the world is very different. It’s fascinating to go there and try and do business. Yet, as I say, these are people who have living standards very similar to what I’ve been fortunate to enjoy. I think it’s a fascinating place.

Josh Barker: [00:24:48] Yeah, it sounds fascinating. And so what can you tell listeners that they can take and apply to their business or their careers?

Tim Lavengood: [00:24:56] As I say, I’ve been in the first 18 months of building a business for about 20 years. I’ve seen that over and over again. One of the most important things is that there is very little that can make someone more conservative than having been at the cutting edge a year or two earlier.

There is this tendency as organizations grow, this is what Mr. Schumpeter talks about. You slip into what he called the circular economy. You get more and more conservative because that’s necessary to sustain a more and more complex organization.

The most important thing to me is throughout your career and throughout the evolution of your business, is to remain an innovator. Remain innovative. Be willing to change the way you do things. Be willing to learn new things. I think that that’s the pressure to become bureaucratic is tremendous. And an old mentor of mine ran a very large company. Fate brought us together for an extended period of time. He said the biggest issue with a big company is what he called the duality of management.

You’ve got to deal with 800,000 customer interactions a day. Make sure they’re all very predictable and at the same time. You have to be on the cutting edge for what happens next. He said that the biggest challenge of running a large organization is balancing those two often very contradictory and very conflicted forces at work. Creating that balance, understanding that balance is probably the one critical thing. People that can do that, are going to do greater things than the people who don’t.

Josh Barker: [00:27:00] Good advice. Very good takeaway. And with that said, Tim, I really appreciate your time on this episode of Ask an Innovator.

It’s been a pleasure chatting and thanks for all your wisdom.

Tim Lavengood: [00:27:11] All right, well thank you. I enjoyed it.

Check out our latest posts

Keep Reading

Share on social