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Q&A: Brian Abraham, Exec. Director Of Spartan Innovations

In August 2012, Brian Abraham was named executive director of Spartan Innovations, L3C, a subsidiary of the Michigan State University Foundation focused on launching sustainable start-up companies from Michigan State University’s research innovations. Abraham, who holds a PhD in chemistry from Tufts University and an MBA from Babson College, has more than 20 years of experience as a successful entrepreneur in a wide variety of industries, from high-technology defense systems, financial groups, and medical devices, to transportation, environmental, and natural resource companies.

URC: After being an entrepreneur for two decades, why were you interested in coming to Michigan State University to create new companies in an academic environment?

Brian Abraham: Actually, I have worked in the space between business and academia since I was at Tufts University, where I had my first start-up. As a chemistry doctoral student there, I learned a valuable lesson in who owns the intellectual property generated in university labs when my thesis advisor and I decided to start a new company based on my graduate research.

But what attracted me to MSU is how Spartan Innovations is structured. Spartan Innovations itself is a ‘start-up’ of the MSU Foundation, rather than being within the university. That independence from the university is likely to give Spartan Innovations some flexibility and agility it might not otherwise have. Typically, university new venture creation entities reside within the university itself, thereby being subject to the policies of a university that, while very appropriate for a university, are not necessarily conducive to successful new venture creation.

While being external to MSU, Spartan Innovations does maintain strong university ties and reports to a board of directors that includes representatives from both MSU faculty and MSU Foundation board members. We are physically located just across the street from the university, along with MSU’s business engagement unit, Business-CONNECT, and its technology commercialization and licensing unit, MSU Technologies.

Collectively, our three entities are known as the MSU Innovation Center. The idea of putting these related units under one roof really makes sense to me – we are all working toward the same goal.

The working atmosphere here is unique, too. We are on the same floor with the City of East Lansing’s Technology Innovation Center (TIC), a business accelerator for technology start-ups in the greater Lansing, Mich., region, as well as the Hatch, a joint program between the TIC and MSU designed to provide a creative environment for MSU undergraduates to develop their own business ventures.

URC: How will your academic background as both a PhD chemist and an MBA help you in launching Spartan Innovations? And what made you decide to pursue your MBA several years after earning your PhD in chemistry?

BA: My technical background in chemistry and my experiences working with a wide range of disparate technologies has been invaluable to me in recognizing the opportunities inherent in a variety of complex research projects. However, not all entrepreneurial opportunities are based on “classic” intellectual property. Jiffy Lube, Home Depot, Southwest Airlines – some of the world’s most successful businesses are not built on classic intellectual product. It is all about having a good business model – recognizing a need in the market and figuring out a viable solution. Intellectual capital is far more important than intellectual property for many businesses.

The first company I started was successful; the second one, not so much. At that point I realized that I needed to know a lot more about business that you just can’t learn “on the job.” While there have certainly been successful entrepreneurs who learn “on the job,” they are few and far between.

I believed I needed the knowledge derived from an MBA program and, in hindsight, I believe that cemented my opinion that the education of a top MBA program is invaluable to any businessperson. The combination of formalized education, anecdotal teachings from practitioners and the lessons learned from studying 200+ business school cases are certainly difficult, if not impossible, to learn “on the job.” That’s where an MBA helped me.

You know, the media really glorifies the life of an entrepreneur. Everyone forgets that, as an entrepreneur, while you may be the CEO, you are also the one that has to go out and buy the staples and the pencils. It’s not romantic. Everything about it is heavy lifting: You have to be a lawyer, an accountant, a manager, and every other professional and nonprofessional role in the company. Aside from selling, setting strategy, raising money, developing the business model and all of those other necessary activities, the CEO also has to take care of the mundane in an entrepreneurial organization. It really pays to have that intensive, integrated business knowledge – the theory and the practice – that you get from an MBA program.

URC: What aspect of this new enterprise interests you the most?

BA: With many universities, the focus is on the research pipeline and the patent portfolio, but the biggest opportunity that everyone seems to overlook is students. Instead of intellectual property, the real value we need to leverage here is our intellectual capital – intelligent people who get the spark of an idea, who see a problem, or who want to change something. If they have insight and ingenuity, they can develop their concept into something the world needs and wants.

I certainly don’t want to dismiss intellectual property since it is a critical element in many business models, however I am always amazed at the successful new business models emanating from universities that lack significant intellectual property. Students are not just knowledge sponges; they are highly motivated, creative forces of productivity when engaged in new venture creation.

One of the most satisfying things I have done in my career is teaching – working with MBA students, showing them how to develop their ideas. My years teaching as an adjunct professor at Babson College and The Ohio State University (sorry Spartans) provided me with some of my most fulfilling professional memories, but I am not ready to retire! I am looking forward to some opportunities to do that at MSU.

We are already organizing a campus-wide student business plan competition for spring 2013 and feel confident we can develop a robust competition with $50,000 in prize monies with the help of our collaborators, including The Michigan State Federal Credit Union as a lead along with ourselves (Spartan Innovations), The Broad School’s Institute for Entrepreneurship, and Reinvent Law at the MSU Law School. I am hopeful others will join as well in support of the student body.