Venture Accelerator internship prepares student to launch his own company

What’s the market potential for a new medical device? Ryan Connolly can tell you. How do the numbers work out for a small-batch, specialty chemical company? Ryan’s crunched them. Does a new type of food coating infringe on existing patents? Ryan says no.

For researchers and entrepreneurs looking to commercialize ideas developed at Oregon State University, Ryan Connolly collects the data, does the analysis and helps them decide if and how to move forward.

And that’s all before he finished earning his bachelor’s degree.

Connolly, who completed a double degree in marketing and business administration with an entrepreneurship concentration in June 2013, spent two years as an intern for Oregon State’s Venture Accelerator program. Working with John Turner in the College of Business and Dan Whitaker in the Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development, Connolly conducted market research, wrote business plans, searched patents and developed licensing and material transfer agreements.

Attracted by the entrepreneurship program in the College of Business, Connolly transferred to Oregon State for his final two years. Entrepreneurship runs in the family; both of his parents have founded and led startups. Pursuing a similar path “was probably inevitable,” he says, “but I embraced it.”

That Oregon State is a major research university was also a big draw. “When you come here, you get a first-hand view of all the interesting work researchers are doing,” he says.

For the OSU Venture Accelerator, it was Connolly’s job to see if those research discoveries could be commercialized. He would examine the market potential for a new product and identify existing companies who could license the technology. Other research innovations would be spun off into new ventures, and for these startups, Connolly would write a business plan that outlines an operations strategy, market research, competitor analysis and financial projections.

In some instances, Connolly would find there wasn’t the commercial potential to make a solid business case. And while Turner and Whitaker oversaw his work, Connolly says he and other student interns would examine pros and cons, draw conclusions and make recommendations, all of which have real-world consequences.

“People are investing real money based on what you’re saying,” Connolly says. “You’re working with real companies who need the information and analysis you’re providing.”

Connolly says the real-world business experience and mentoring from Turner and Whitaker helped him sharpen his research and critical thinking skills. With their guidance, Connolly learned what questions to ask scientists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs, what it takes to launch a successful business and what challenges have to be overcome, especially financial ones.

“The mentors are critical to improving both the business plans and your own abilities,” Connolly says. “On almost every project, there’s something you miss or something you need to look at further. They’ll help you along the way, but they also expect a lot and push you.”

And Connolly consistently exceeded their expectations. “Ryan is very aggressive in wanting to learn and documenting what he’s learned,” Whitaker says. “I gave him the harder projects because he has the tenacity to figure out what the problem is and find the answers.”

Adds Turner, “Ryan has made outstanding contributions in researching and refining commercial opportunities for intellectual property developed at Oregon State. He has a remarkable ability to identify the most important aspects of a business opportunity and present them clearly and concisely.”

With his experience helping other startup companies, it’s no surprise that Connolly has already launched his own. Together with two computer science students and another from business, Connolly is developing PlayPulse, which takes a scientific approach to video-game testing by using a comprehensive suite of biometric sensors to measure where, when and how a user is most engaged in a video game.

Working with Turner, entrepreneur-in-residence Bob Mayes and computer science assistant professor Chris Scaffidi, Connolly and partners Andy Miller, Zack Anderson and Hannah Vincent won seed funding from the university’s Division of Business and Engineering Undergraduates Participating Toward Innovation and Commercialization (UPTIC) program. They’re currently pitching the business to potential investors, and PlayPulse is a candidate for the Venture Accelerator.

In which case Connolly will have plenty of support to make his company a success.