Innovation grants offer funding for professors with ‘prostartups’

Vera Bespalova

UT professors who dream of becoming entrepreneurs will now be able to make their dreams a reality, thanks to new grants offered by the Innovation Center in the Cockrell School of Engineering.

The grants will provide funding for UT professors with early-stage startups, known as “prostartups,” and will allow them to commercialize their technology. Grant amounts vary depending on donations from alumni and private donors. 

Louise Epstein, the Innovation Center’s managing director, said there is currently a gap in funding when it comes to professors making their technology marketable. Epstein said this gap, known as “the valley of death” to professors, makes it difficult to take their research to the next step, and the Innovation Center’s grants aim to solve this problem.

"There is plenty of research money available. But once the research in complete, there isn’t money for a professor to take that research … and get it to the stage that they can get outside investors,” Epstein said. 

Epstein said 100 percent of the money for the grants comes from private donors and alumni who will not receive anything in return for donating.

In order for professors to qualify for a grant, they must have a completed design and a plan on how to commercialize it. 

So far, the grants have been awarded to two UT faculty members. Luis Sentis, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, received $40,000 to advance his lab robotics technology, and Richard Crawford, professor of mechanical engineering, received $20,000 to advance his computer-aided design technology.

The grant is open to all UT-Austin faculty who wish to develop their research.  

“Commercialization is the next stage to ‘change the world,’” Crawford said. “These grants demonstrate that the University values entrepreneurship by professors, and that the University is willing to take a chance on moving research to the next level.”

The goal of the grants is to allow professors to create startups that can recruit off-campus staff and leadership, raise capital and scale up to impact society. 

“Acquisition of new grants will grow the Cockrell School into an even more prestigious institution, and we are excited every time our professors are rewarded for their efforts,” chemical engineering sophomore Davis Harlan said. 

“[These innovation grants] are really all about ‘What starts here changes the world,’” Epstein said.