Photo by Jeffrey Totaro
In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Chris Kauzmann ’13, ’14G about the recently launched Lehigh Ventures Lab, a partnership between Lehigh's Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship and the College of Business.
Kauzmann was named interim director of the Lehigh Ventures Lab in April of this year. After earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering with an entrepreneurship minor and a master’s of engineering in technical entrepreneurship at Lehigh, Kauzmann has taught, managed, and run Baker Institute programs for a decade. In 2019, he became the faculty director of the Baker Institute's flagship program, LehighSiliconValley, putting his own signature on the immersive student experience.
Kauzmann spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript.
Visit the Lehigh Ventures Lab Portfolio page to learn about some of the students and graduates in the program.
Jack Croft: So, let's start at the obvious place, which is what is the Lehigh Ventures Lab?
Chris Kauzmann: Lehigh Ventures Lab is a milestone-based accelerator for startup companies related to Lehigh. What that means translated is we help early-stage startup companies move from a generally pre-launch or early launch — right after launch phase — into a meaningful business milestone forward. And we do that in about six-month increments that are recurrable for participants.
Croft: If you could talk a little bit about the partnership between the Baker Institute and the College of Business that led to the creation of the Ventures Lab.
Kauzmann: Lisa Getzler, the executive director of the Baker Institute, and very recently, as of last week, named the vice provost for entrepreneurship at Lehigh, and Georgette Phillips, the Kevin L. and Lisa A. Clayton Dean of the College of Business, got together and had this shared vision years ago. They saw where Lehigh was headed and they had this vision that we should be supporting companies beyond the education and helping founders move beyond the walls of the classroom.
So when Georgette started raising capital and having this vision for a new building, that's where the partnership really formed for Lehigh Ventures Lab. The Baker Institute brought the programming and the College of Business brought the space. And so now, we've got this beautiful new space in the College of Business Business Innovation Building. And Baker's been able to bring in our deep expertise in programming, venture creation, mentorship networks, capital, all sorts of resources to the table. So long-time vision, and finally being able to execute on it through their leadership.
Croft: What kind of direct support does the Ventures Lab provide to those who are selected for the program?
Kauzmann: I'm going to give you two versions of the answer. One is what you can basically copy and paste from almost any business accelerator, incubator, mentorship fund. There are so many support services. And everybody says basically these … things. We're going to give you some amount of capital. We're going to give you coaches and mentors to help you through the process. Maybe we're going to give you some space to do your work. And we're going to teach you a bunch of stuff. We're going to give you some content. … So the generic answer is those four buckets.
The specific answer of what we're offering is it really comes into the details of how we deliver on those four buckets. … When we say we provide coaches and mentors, we provide that in three very specific areas. We provide it in generalist coaches. So those coaches are generally Lehigh alumni and friends of the university who have founded companies of their own. They're serial entrepreneurs. They might be investors. They're people who understand the early-stage startup process incredibly well. And they're able to help founders ask the right questions at the right time and really help them prioritize some of their strategic initiatives.
The second category of support that we offer in the coaching segment is deep industry expertise. So you might not need to know everything about a startup company if you're an expert in manufacturing. But obviously, we have depth of alumni experience in industry in a huge range of industry topics. So we're building that mentorship pool, so that as teams approach needs that might be in the medical field or might be in the manufacturing industry, we can really take those deep industry folks who understand that world and provide that coaching to teams.
And then the third category is professional service providers. So those might be intellectual property attorneys and business attorneys and accountants and marketing agencies.
Same thing when we look at something like content. Very often, programs will have, "We run workshops and we run X, Y, Z topical sessions throughout your one year with us." And what we found is that those workshops are not actually always delivered as needed, when those teams actually need the content. What we've done is said, "We think the real problem isn't access to the knowledge. The real problem is knowing which knowledge that's out there is good, accurate knowledge, and then how do you apply that knowledge?"
So we're building a really basic self-serve content library. We have over a decade of experience of resources online that might range from a Y Combinator startup school and a Harvard Business Review case and a TED Talk. And we compile those together in a self-serve content library so students and founders, faculty and recent alumni can go through and say, "OK, well, I need to understand the basics of marketing my early-stage technology venture." Great. Here's the videos. Here's some content for that. Here's a great article that we vetted, we know is good, solid information. Then what we spend our human capital time on is helping those teams translate what they've read or watched or seen into the application of their venture.
We then also provide some grant funding. We're hoping to build out some larger investment funding opportunities. Right now, we have some alumni who are looking like they might be interested in investing in some companies, once they go through. And then we're building other partnerships as well beyond that to support ventures on the back end.
Croft: One of the other benefits, it would seem, clearly is the new Business Innovation Building on campus. What are some of the main technological and design advantages that space offers to the teams that are working there?
Kauzmann: The Business Innovation Building is an unbelievable home for some of our founders, to the point where we've even had some alumni coming back and talking to early founders saying, "Don't get used to being in such a beautiful space because most early-stage founders don't get space this nice."
The real benefits that we've been seeing so far, the first is simply having a space. Up until this point, there hasn't been a space for this stage of business to be co-locating with each other. And that idea of co-locating with each other has been incredibly, incredibly valuable so far, where you see peers getting together and helping each other solve problems. …
It is incredibly hard to be a founder. Incredibly hard to do that when you're a full-time student, when you're a full-time faculty member, when you're a recent alum who might be working a job full time or part time and trying to get this business off the ground. And so a lot of those interactions are also based on just the social and emotional kind of, "Hey, how do you get through this? How do you manage this? How do you manage your time? How do you deal with the family pressure?" And those types of conversations can really only happen once there's some trust formed.
So some of the reasons this space works to facilitate some of that is that we've got a shared kitchen space. That makes a huge difference. These founders beat me to the office. They're there after me, when I leave at the end of the day. So having the ability to have meals together and not have to leave and be able to share that non "work conversation," right? But sit down and have a cup of coffee or a meal with somebody makes a really big cultural difference there. Having a dedicated desk of their own so that they know they don't have to be fighting for a desk space somewhere.
Then we have this beautiful pitch room that was generously given to us by Sue Bevan Baggott ‘83. That gives the ability to have larger group meetings. And there's amazing technology in there that allows us to beam in anyone from anywhere around the world and have really meaningful active conversations with them. We've actually gone as far as accepting a few participants in Lehigh Ventures Lab on a hybrid commitment, where they're living somewhere else. They're recent alumni who have graduated a few years ago, have moved, established their lives somewhere else. And when we saw their application, we really wanted them in. Their companies were exciting.
Croft: How does the program decide what ideas get accepted and which do not?
Kauzmann: It is a competitive process to get into the program. Obviously, we're putting a lot of resources into these teams, both financial and human capital. What we always look for and what we say very clearly to founders is we never judge the idea. We joke very often, if we could pick great ideas, then we would all be billionaires off somewhere beyond Lehigh and funding all of this stuff that's going on.
So ideas are actually very, very difficult to pick. At this phase, there's a common saying within the startup community of, "Do you bet on the horse or do you bet on the jockey?" And in that metaphor, the horse is the idea, the company, and the jockey is the founder. In our world, we always bet on the jockey. What we look for isn't, "Is this a good idea?" What we look for is, "What's the externally validated rationale for this idea that the founder has put together? And why does that founder think this idea has a meaningful impact in the world, has a customer that wants this solution that they've developed, that they're solving a meaningful problem?"
What we look for in the founder is that ability to express that it's not their own opinion of a good idea, but it's external to their opinion, right? They've gone out, they've talked to customers, they've done competitor research, they've talked to competitors, they understand the market for some unique reason. And they're able to then communicate that with us and show that, external to their own opinion, this is an idea that has merit in the world.
The last factor is we do look at the founder. We look for some of those common characteristics that we know are required for founders to have. Basic things like grit, right? Entrepreneurship is the highs of highs and lows of lows. You have to be able to expect that there's going to be really good days that are amazing, but that's going to be followed by a day that's harder than any other 9-to-5 job you've ever had because you're responsible for those employees and that thing that's going wrong and you have to figure it out and the weight of that is on you.
So looking for some of those characteristics around grit and willingness to accept feedback. Coachability is actually a major thing that we look at within companies that are being accepted.