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22 March 2018

A champion for innovation and entrepreneurship

University of California’s Christine Gulbranson, chairman of the Global University Venturing Leadership Society, talks to GUV editor Thierry Heles about her drive to support the best and brightest among students, faculty and alumni.

Author: Thierry Heles, editor

Christine Gulbranson is a force of nature. It is nigh on impossible not to be captivated by her passion for her job – senior vice-president, innovation and entrepreneurship, at University of California (UC) System – and her dedication to the ecosystem – also notable in her position as chairman of the Global University Venturing Leadership Society.

Yet despite her impressive résumé – which begins with five degrees from UC Davis, including an MBA and a PhD in materials science and engineering, and features general partner at VC firm Global Catalyst Partners, co-founder of nanotechnology developer UltraDots and chief executive of startup advisory firm Christalis, to name but a small selection – Gulbranson is approachable and empathetic.

Those characteristics come in handy in a job that requires her to create a network of, and engage, startups launched by UC’s 250,000 students, 200,000 faculty and staff and 1.8 million living alumni. Last year alone, UC companies from licensed technologies brought in $21bn in revenue and $6.6bn in investments, and employed 18,000 people.

She began her job – a new position – in May 2016 and said her decision at the time was driven by the fact that she liked “building things that are new and this is a brand new division in a 150-year-old institution”.

She continued: “It is an amazing opportunity considering the wealth of technology being developed. We average five inventions across the system per day and 100 research publications a day – most of which are in peer-reviewed journals. That is huge. As I was thinking about trying something new and how I could have an impact, the assets and resources of UC were enticing to me.”

It helped that the job offer was with UC. Gulbranson added: “I am a graduate of UC Davis. Throughout my career I have built a wide-ranging skillset, and this job is a culmination of all those skills – skills that I can now bring back to an institution that has given me so much and enabled me to grow in my career.”

The position is also a homecoming professionally. From 1997 to 1999, Gulbranson had already been director of research collaborations in the UC office of the president, before moving on to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where her achievements included the creation of an incubator.

It is difficult to underestimate the amount of work faced by Gulbranson and her team, which includes Wendy Lim, chief of staff in the office of innovation and entrepreneurship, and Victoria Slivkoff, head of strategic partnerships and Asia-Pacific general manager in the same office.

Gulbranson, who reports directly to UC president Janet Napolitano, said: “UC is a behemoth with 10 campuses, five medical centres, three affiliated national laboratories and a state-wide agricultural and natural resources group. We are evaluating how we can capture all of the innovative and entrepreneurial activities going on within the system. As you can imagine, it is very dynamic.”

How, exactly, is Gulbranson tackling the task? She explained: “We have more than 1.8 million alumni living all over the world. As we build out this entrepreneurial ecosystem, we want to engage our entrepreneurial alumni because there is such a wealth of human capital.

“These alumni can be mentors to the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, and we can engage them as entrepreneurs-in-residence, potential investors and corporate leaders that can partner with UC.”

The groundwork had already been laid to some extent. Gulbranson said: “The individual campuses have done a really good job and have their ecosystems around their locations.”

The challenge was to connect these ecosystems and elevate these efforts by bringing in outside actors – alumni in China, Europe, Africa and elsewhere. The key, Gulbranson said, was creating “a sense of community”. It was a sense she had always felt, adding: “Because it has afforded me so much, UC has been part of my family.”

And she was not alone in this. “Many others feel the same way. We did not have a database of our entrepreneurial alumni, so I started a UC founders group on professional networking site LinkedIn that now has more than 1,000 companies. When I reached out to those alumni, most of the responses were: ‘What can I do to help you? This is amazing.’

“They tell me their stories of how they started their company when they were an undergraduate or graduate student. Some describe how they launched their business after they graduated and often credit a professor who made a significant impact on them. As they build their startup they think about what they learned and try to inject that into the company culture.”

While 1,000 companies is a lot, it also seemed like just the beginning. Gulbranson launched UC’s first systemwide startup showcase, held at the Global Corporate Venturing & Innovation Summit in January (for a full report, see last month’s magazine) saying: “We are just scratching the surface of the innovative technologies and entrepreneurial ventures within the UC system. As an example, take Michael Urner from medical device maker Tergis Technologies. How do we elevate his startup so that he has a platform to tell as many people as possible about his product?”

She stressed that it did not matter whether a company was working on university-affiliated technology or was independent, as both needed support and both types of founder should be considered “UC-preneurs”.

Technology transfer is already a well-established process at UC. “We have a really nice system of intellectual property (IP) development and technology commercialisation. That is set up and working well, but innovation is so much more than that. We do not have a system to help alumni who start companies that are not based on UC-invented technology. They are still a part of the UC family – they are UC-preneurs too.

“You do not necessarily need to have IP to have an innovative company. You could create a new process or be first to market. It is looking at the whole landscape, beyond tech transfer, to include the broad spectrum of innovation and all of what that encompasses.”

Once Gulbranson started scratching the surface, even she was surprised to find how much impact UC alumni have had across the world. She said: “I did not know that an alumnus of UC Berkeley, Marc Tarpenning, is a co-founder of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla. And the co-founder of ride-hailing app Lyft, Logan Green, is a UC Santa Barbara grad.”

Some alumni may have chosen a more obvious path to entrepreneurship, though Gulbranson also gave an example of a 1988 history graduate from Berkeley who went on to launch a smartphone app that harnessesd the phone’s camera to capture and analyse a user’s complexion to enable a custom makeup match. His company, MatchCo, was acquired by skincare producer Shiseido.

These are the stories that would never be unearthed if UC had not created Gulbranson’s position. She is proud of her role to date, noting: “It warms my heart to be able to engage this community and pull them back into the fold.”

But what was the catalyst for the creation of a UC entrepreneur label? As with so many things in academia, it started with a faculty member who, Gulbranson paraphrased, realised that he had been with UC for 34 years, taken a company public and still had one that was private. Never once had he considered himself a UC entrepreneur.

Gulbranson’s passion for building new things shone through again as she picked up on that point. “How do we shift that culture? How do we embrace that we are UC entrepreneurs and own that label? As the largest public research university with all of the entrepreneurs that we have in the world, it is mindboggling.

“That is why I launched the ‘I am a UC Entrepreneur’ campaign. We started with students, faculty and staff, and I was impressed watching their pitches. As an example, I did not know we were developing a new drug for ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – a group of rare neurological diseases.”

Indeed, selecting a winner of the showcase, who will be at the GUV: Fusion conference this May in London, was an unenviable challenge. But even those who did not win – the honour went to Sophia Yen and her telemedicine and drug delivery service Pandia Health –  received a significant boost from the showcase.

Gulbranson continued: “This competition gave all of the finalists an opportunity to tell their story to an important and influential audience. The challenge was not limited to getting exposure, or even raising capital. We want to allow startups to flourish, with a little bit of assistance from us. We have a huge network, so let’s engage these entrepreneurs and help them out.”

Helping startups to grow is a noble goal, but how did Gulbranson see the UC entrepreneur label evolve? She explained: “When you start anything, it is a heavy lift. You have to get out there and be a change agent.”

People will typically challenge any effort to make a change, a reality that Gulbranson admitted she also faced. It had not put a damper on her ambitions, however. “Ultimately I want the entrepreneurs to own this label and I want them to see the value of participating. I want them to feel part of this community. That takes time.

“Specifically, for us it is a question of how we build that sense of community to help you along the way, because you are a UC alumnus and you are part of the community.”

Would Gulbranson want to expand the UC showcase, not just at the GCVI Summit but in general? She replied with an enthusiastic yes. “This was a great platform and an amazing group to pilot this. I definitely see an opportunity to expand the showcase. I wanted to understand the feedback from the investors in the room and the corporate value for them and I heard really great feedback.

“On the other side, was it valuable to the startups? That was a resounding 100% yes. Let’s build this out, let’s make it bigger.”

Such a response was a big relief for Gulbranson, who acknowledged: “It is really hard when you are doing something for the first time. I heard from the startups that they really did not know what this event was and that they applied because it sounded interesting. But when they arrived, the response was: ‘Wow, the level of folks in the room is impressive. How would I have ever had this opportunity otherwise?’

“So, of course we are going to still partner with the GCVI Summit in the future. One of the tremendous values here is the corporate VCs. They have an amazing advantage over traditional VCs. Corporate VCs are potential beta-testers. Not only can they infuse money, they can test your product and bring these technologies into emerging markets. They are the whole package.”

Completing the “triple helix”, Gulbranson said she would happily target government investors too. She declared: “The breadth and depth of technologies that come out of the UC system are phenomenal. Of course, governments are going to be interested – new energy technologies, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, healthcare, all of it.

“To pick up on the earlier question of why I took the job with UC – this is why. UC is the largest public research university and all the different technologies you can see in a day are amazing. This role is very exciting to me, to be able to think about multiple things at once and to figure out how we can help and elevate these cutting-edge technologies and new ventures.”

But despite her passion for UC, Gulbranson freely acknowledged that this same model had applications across the university world – in fact, she noted it had already started.

“I was on a panel with the president of Johns Hopkins University, Ronald Daniels, and I heard from my counterpart there. He called her and said: ‘We should be doing this too.’ That is validation that we are heading in the right direction.”

It was a cause Gulbranson was also keen to push in her role as chairman of the Global University Venturing Leadership Society. She added: “I was in tech transfer years ago, but in this day and age, innovation and entrepreneurship are more than tech transfer and we need to embrace this evolution. We need to figure out how we expand beyond the tech transfer model.”

Indeed, Gulbranson’s vision for the GUV Leadership Society is ambitious. She added: “When you think about the broader picture, innovation is really a nascent market. We are just scratching the surface of how we are going to handle it. When we initially met in May 2017 to set up the society, one of the beauties of it was that many universities around the globe were at different stages of building their entrepreneurial ecosystems and approaching the challenges differently.

Gulbranson continued: “I am very honoured to be chairing the society. I believe there is so much we can do with it. What I like about it is that it is very collegial. People are willing to be open and share how they are addressing investment, entrepreneurship and innovation.”

The sense of competition always remained but, Gulbranson said: “We all have our focus and comfort zone, and other universities that we are closer to. But when you take down the walls, we are all the same. Maybe this one deal is not going to happen for me, but it may happen for you. Maybe six months from now the same will happen in the other direction.”

In fact, this collegiality seemed natural to Gulbranson. “I understand competition, but we are all in this together. We are all trying to figure out how to build this ecosystem, especially in the beginning. I am all about helping the team.”

The UC entrepreneur label, the GUV Leadership Society and Gulbranson’s job could not have come at a better time. She concluded: “Universities are a tremendous and necessary player in the global economy. Twenty years ago universities were not seen as an important a player, but today they are a necessity. People need to become cognisant of that if they are not already. We need to figure out how we can all work together to grow the economy and solve the world’s problems, because we have a wealth of really smart people that we can tap into.

“It is really beautiful to be involved in this, to be at the forefront of change, technology development, commercialisation and growing the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

As enthusiastic as Christine Gulbranson is to lead the charge, as lucky as the university community is to have such a passionate spokesperson among its thought-leaders. The future could not look brighter.

Copyright Mawsonia Limited 2010. Please don´t cut articles from www.globaluniversityventuring.com or the PDF and redistribute by email or post to the web without written permission.

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