Kris Appel never fit the stereotypical entrepreneur image of a geek in a computer lab. With a master's degree in romance language linguistics, she was recruited by the National Security Agency where she started as a translator and eventually settled into management for 17 years. She says she enjoyed her career but felt something was missing because it "wasn't creative."
After a couple of years at a tech company, in 2006 Kris signed up for a yearlong program which "changed my life by giving me tools, training and the nerve to unleash my creativity." Launched in 2005 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the program called ACTiVATE, is designed for mid-career professional women who have a desire to build technology companies. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the program helps budding entrepreneurial women develop and test business ideas by exploring potential technology transfers -- intellectual property sitting in university and government labs -- waiting to be commercialized. The program pushes teams to license technologies, hire teams, raise capital, launch products, merge and grow companies. Kris decided to stay close to her Baltimore home and found her tech passion nearby in the labs of the University of Maryland School of Medicine: two women professors in physical rehabilitation, Dr. Jill Whithall and Dr. Sandy McCombe Waller, had invented an exercise device to help improve arm function and range of motion in people with partial paralysis caused by stroke, cerebral palsy or other brain injuries.
After talking to patients whose lives have been improved by the device, Kris became impassioned about the potential of the product and licensed exclusive worldwide rights to the technology for 20 years. The company Kris launched in 2006 is Encore Path and her signature product is Tailwind, a mechanical exercise device that helps stroke survivors recover arm movement by reactivating central neuromuscular pathways through repetitive therapy. With the two inventors on her Advisory Board, Encore Path now has about 18 employees and has sold over 100 devices. About 70% of sales are directly to stroke patients for home use through her website: about 20% go to hospitals for use in rehabilitation centers and 10% to overseas distributors. Her pride is that despite a money back guarantee, no one has ever returned the device; instead her energy is fueled by testimonials from stroke patients who have regained arm function with the device. With six million Americans living with the physical impairments of stroke, Kris is confident her product has strong potential as she shores up her marketing. Her current challenge is to build sales volume with a boost from another round of financing her hopes to secure in the fall.
Meanwhile the ACTiVATE program where she got her start has also moved west. Director Julie Lenzer Kirk, a former IBM employee and software entrepreneur who cashed out and now heads the Maryland program is proud of the 100 women she has trained to start their own businesses. While the graduates have already created more than two dozen technology companies, she thinks, "that isn't enough." So she is spurring the expansion of the program in other states. The first outpost is Texas State, at the Round Rock campus, just north of Austin which started a program last fall with a class of 26 women culled from over 100 applicants. The director of the Texas State program is former biotech entrepreneur, Terry Hazell, an instructor who worked in the Maryland program. Funded by Texas State University, the program insures its students meet with representatives from universities throughout Texas who bring in technologies ready for market. So far, Texas ACTiVATE has spun off six new companies and is working with three program participants to use technologies to expand existing companies. Eventually, the universities get royalties from the sale of their products.
Now ACTiVATE is also poised for international expansion. In 2008, Julie Lenzer Kirk, along with Renee Lewis who joined the program in 2008, was asked by the State Department to provide four months of training to a group of women entrepreneurs in South Africa. They have since presented similar programs in Qatar. As a result earlier this year, the pair has secured the international license to ACTiVATE to promote professional growth and development for women around the world.
High tech holds unlimited opportunity for entrepreneurs at any age. For starters, all universities have gems ready to become the basis for start-ups. Of course the path is typically winding, even treacherous! In future blogs we'll explore more on retooling for women, tech transfer opportunities, problems in securing patents, forging reasonable licensing and royalty agreements, and the challenges of regulatory approvals. The key, urges ACTiVATE architect Julie Lenzer Kirk, is to push women past their comfort zone. In an early class, she says, "I ask women to put their watches on the other arm; it drives those nuts. But I tell them to get used to it. You have to learn to be uncomfortable to be a successful entrepreneur."
Meanwhile, share your experiences with tech startups -- your discomforts and your successes!