“I work for you,” said Norm Rapino, executive director of Rocket Innovations.
The lifelong entrepreneur and former University of Michigan commercialization and mentor network specialist is helping to re-launch The University of Toledo’s technology incubator.
Since joining Rocket Innovations Jan. 19, Rapino has been making the rounds on campus to explain the incubator’s re-imagined focus and vision. Central to that focus is the involvement of faculty.“We want to better connect our faculty to the entrepreneurial opportunities available to them,” said Rapino, explaining that “Rocket Innovations is focused on helping faculty ideas and research outcomes make a difference and solve real-world problems.”
Rapino knows about the challenges Rocket Innovations faced when it operated as University of Toledo Innovations Enterprises, or UTIE, but believes that thanks to an involved board and strong interim leadership, the organization is on the right path.
During the last two years, Rocket Innovations has been restructured under the Division of Research. Also during that time, the board and interim director worked to model best practices after visits to successful incubators across the Midwest.
“We have taken a step back, publicly, and revised, revamped and refocused our efforts during Rhonda Wingfield’s interim leadership,” said Dr. William Messer, UT vice president for research.
“They did the hard work to determine the changes we can make to have a greater impact going forward,” Rapino added.
He believes that Rocket Innovations needs to make investments in companies as a part of their funding stream, not as the sole investor. He also believes UT can rally other appropriate investors around viable opportunities, since Ohio already has a system in place, led by the Third Frontier, to make this happen.
“This will let us spread our own resources over a larger group of opportunities that I am sure we will find here at the University,” Rapino said.
As Rocket Innovations looks at new investment opportunities, Rapino said the focus will be on those technologies the market itself indicates it needs, rather than the products developers want to create a market for.
“Just having a good idea or research outcome is not enough to create a new venture, and we at Rocket Innovations will combine proven commercialization practices and available resources to make viable startups happen,” he said.
In the long-term, he will build a mentor network from among UT’s successful entrepreneur alumni and others like them in the region. He also emphasized the importance of engaging faculty and students to grow research at the University and encourage student entrepreneurs.
“I want to build one-on-one relationships with people who have ideas,” Rapino said. “My view is: Don’t wait, go out and engage.”