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A start-up is not a light switch!

It’s a grand ballroom. Filled with research scientists and engineers. Great folks. Deeply interesting stuff. I can’t wade through the room without being immersed into sincere and fascinating conversations. But someone keeps shoving me forward. Then I am up on stage looking out. A sea of four hundred who have rocked their labs and now want to change the world! A rough calculation ensures me that I stand before 6,000 years of collective research. Good heavens! One might think the hope of humanity in one room.

And then the panic. The dry anxiety of the bad dream. I know I’m dreaming yet like slow-motion running this is real and intense. Because I want to do right by them. I want to help.

The emcee’s final queue-up echoes in my ear with the fine reverberation of a Fender amplifier, “…and so, as you all ponder technology commercialization, here is the One Simple Secret as to whether or not to risk everything on a start-up company.” Her head bows just a bit with unwarranted respect. She hands me the microphone. It’s a Shure SM57. Nice heavy feel. I study the fat model A2WS windscreen used at so many diplomat podiums.

One thing? Only one thing? I’m filled with many words, not few and I’ve never had just ONE thing to say!

Furthermore, I’m neither a famous diplomat nor even an infamous one. I stare down at the SM57 and wish that
windscreen weren’t there. I’m just a normal guy trying to help people commercialize stuff out of their laboratories. I don’t have that answer. No one has that answer! The blank stares penetrate. Each one craves the answer. I study the microphone and shiver at another annoying aspect of dreaming: I didn’t prepare. This event wasn’t even on my calendar. As only makes sense in dreams, a few minutes ago I was on my way to a birthday party. I consider telling them they have the wrong guy. Perhaps I could assure them that there is no single answer. No one knows! The watery enthusiasm in their eyes mattes over to a dull grey. They have understood what I was thinking. Their disappointment has turned zombetic. They move toward me swaying; arms up. Mouths gaping. Hungry. They will not stand for my lame excuses.

I turn my eyes and follow the thick XLR cord from the SM57. It runs up to the wall behind me and into a patch box that no doubt feeds the sound and lighting crew. As I back up instinctively in fear their giant spots follow me. I boldly stick a finger up into air – “The one thing I want to tell you; the ONE Secret – ” Just then I hit the wall and turning, I see a light switch with a hand-scribbled sign taped above it: “Choose Carefully – THIS LIGHT SWITCH CONTROLS EVERYTHING!”

© Mark W. Wilson

I hit the switch down. The whole room goes black. No sparkling chandeliers. No burning spot lights. Even the microphone dies in my grip and melts into a smear of black putty. But no one panics. And they can all see me clearly and I can see them. They stop pacing forward and in the unison of a Michael Jackson video their heads jerk three-quarters left; their right ears ardent. The room is silent. This dream is getting weirder all the time.

It’s not a light switch.” My voice is a whisper. I shout it out again but it is still a whisper. Yet it permeates the whole room. All can hear but some do not listen. They turn full round and bump their way to the far exits. Their hearts broken. They wanted a light switch but I cannot help them. Others remain but wander. They tackle nothing for fear of making the wrong decision.

Some of us have gathered near the stage. The light is very dim but we see with clarity – at least a short distance in front of us. Albeit tenuous, there is a comfort in our hearts. We do envision a grand mountain in the distance but our focus is on today’s hike; this month’s priorities.

How to best move technology out of the lab isn’t a decision made at a moment of time and thereafter guaranteed as a right or wrong choice. It is a dimmer switch. Luckily, the earliest questions need pondering regardless of the pathway forward. At the first signs of interest, the proactive scientist can increase the light just slightly and start poking around as to how this research might best be commercialized. The savvy commercialization scientist starts to attend business workshops, read start-up magazines, and talk to successful (and failed) entrepreneurs. They start having coffee-chats with informal mentors. They have informal licensing discussions with tech transfer professionals. They consider their own personality, skill set, and career interests. They become experts in the sad and happy stories of comparable research going commercial. And if all looks well in that dim light, they slide the switch just slightly higher and dig just slightly deeper.

All-or-nothing, for-the-rest-of-my-life, never-go-back decisions are hard; and at the onset of technology commercialization, they are not yet relevant.

Should you turn on the light?

How about just a little bit on?


Mark W. Wilson is the creator of the Pre-Seed Workshop, an intense company-building accelerator that has been the originating spark for over 80 new technology-based companies over the past 11 years. He is also the President of Initiatives Consulting, a seventeen-year old outsourced new product development company that creates and implements medical devices. He started Initiatives Consulting in 1997 to help clients commercialize their most promising ideas. Mark earned both a BSc and a MEng in Mechanical Engineering, from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is a lecturer at the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business in entrepreneurship and innovation management. Contact Mark Wilson at

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