Keller Pathway Fellowship Paves Women’s Entrepreneurial Journey

Barry Keller mentors Karen Wagner, a postdoctoral scholar focusing on neurobiology and eicosanoids, at the 2014 UC Entrepreneurship Academy.

A year ago, Barry and Lynda Keller funded a new initiative through the Sacramento Region Community Foundation to help innovative women explore the commercial potential of their work. Their generosity allowed three researchers to attend the 2014 UC Entrepreneurship Academy at no charge.

“Women entrepreneurs have a significantly more difficult experience [than men] when it comes to raising money from investors,” noted Barry Keller. “My hope is to, over time, act as a connector to encourage a stronger, more collaborative dynamic that closes this gap—benefiting both these entrepreneurs and the regional business ecosystem as a whole.

Brewing a Business
Ann Spevacek

Ann Spevacek loves beer. (A current favorite is the Sculpin IPA crafted by Ballast Point Brewery in San Diego.)

She also loves science. Serendipity struck when a brewing graduate student approached the UC Davis lab where Spavacek was conducting postdoctoral research and suggested a collaboration. “She brewed the beers and I ran and analyzed the samples,” says Spevacek, who presented their results at the 2015 Annual Meeting for the American Society of Brewing Chemists.

This spring, Spevacek attended the Ag Innovation Entrepreneurship Academy as the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s first Keller Pathways Fellow. Her business idea: a simple, inexpensive testing kits for brewers to ensure their product quality.

“The craft beer industry is rapidly growing, with roughly 1.5 new breweries opening every day,” notes Spavacek. “The fate of these breweries ultimately lies in the quality of their product: they will attract and retain customers if they can reliably produce tasty beer.”

The academy provided a crash course in business—with unexpected early results.

Having learned the importance of market validation, Spavacek contacted potential customers to explore what bacterial contamination testing kits are currently available to brewers—and learned of a recently launched product that would be difficult to compete with.

She’s placed her original business plan on hold and has returned to the lab, where she is “focusing my efforts on my research in the hope that I can develop other methods that will be useful for assessing beer quality—such that I can then form a business and take my research to market.”

Impressed with the fellowship recipients, the Kellers recently deepened their support for women, cross-disciplinary and other underrepresented aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs with the Keller Pathways Fellowship program, administered by the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The program provides a multi-faceted opportunity for university innovators and entrepreneurs to move their research from the lab and out into the world. Specifically, it combines participation in a UC Davis entrepreneurship academy with monthly cohort-based mentoring sessions alongside the Child Family Institute’s Business Development Fellows.

In addition, the year-long program includes participation in entrepreneurship workshops and events, as well as in the UC Davis Big Bang! Business Competition, where the Fellows will receive invaluable feedback from industry executives, entrepreneurs, business leaders, venture capitalists and angel investors on how to create and refine their business concept.

NetWorks spoke with Barry Keller about the new program.

What motivated you to expand your support of underrepresented entrepreneurs?

The original Fellowship, while useful as a “beta” program, was by nature a shallow dip into the entrepreneurial experience. A three-day academy is simply not enough time to provide a solid perspective of the many parts that make up the machinery of taking an idea from concept to company.

We did, however, see a synergistic flow from the Entrepreneurship Academy into the Big Bang! Business Competition and workshops. Regardless of how the Fellows finish in the competition, the team-building, mentoring, problem solving and mechanics involved in the process guarantee that they will gain valuable associations and experience that they can bring with them, regardless of their ultimate career path. This problem-solving and risk-reward perspective will be useful in other facets of their lives, such as community activism and personal growth, as well.

How did your interactions with the 2014 Keller Fellows influence your decision?

Tivi, Marie and Akshata were quite possibly the perfect group of women that could have become involved in our initial program; they are intelligent, enthusiastic and engaging. In a sense, they unknowingly precipitated the expansion of our program. They were excited to participate in the Entrepreneurial Academy and appreciative of our support, but I felt as though we had done nothing more than tease them in a way—dangling this fascinating and scary business ecosystem in front of them and then pulling it away. It was obvious that more needed to be done.

Read more about the 2014 Keller Fellows >

What is the biggest value of the new, year-long program?

The entrepreneurial world is very different from the typical business environment. The elements of risk, passion and self-motivation blend with immediate, high-level decision making to create an atmosphere that can be all consuming.

So you have this Great Idea. Where does one start? What are the correct questions to ask? Everyone has a different opinion—who do I trust? How do I fight off self-doubt? What are my milestones? There are so many questions….

Our program brings these elements and more into a cohesive set of guidelines and experiences. Networking, mentoring, tasking/multi-tasking, learning how to maintain focus on a project and a goal, and working with teams are the program’s major benefits—and important business skills regardless of whether the participant continues down the entrepreneurial path or not.

You served as a mentor in last fall’s UC Entrepreneurship Academy. What was most powerful?

Two things come to mind. It’s important to understand that there is no “correct answer” to the many facets of entrepreneurship that this and other programs look to address. It is not a linear system. This environment is one of ebb and flow, action and feedback and reaction, disruption of the norm. This is why very large businesses have trouble with innovation: they build structures and policies and various other fences that dampen their ability to pivot and to innovate. The academies have the benefit of the interaction.

This segues to my second thought—that the excitement and passion that I see from each of the participants is infectious. Their energy creates an aura that just reaches out and grabs me. I want them all to succeed. I want them all to enjoy the experience and carry the lessons forward. I’m the guy in the back with virtual pom-poms doing goofy cheerleading dances.

What will be your involvement in the Keller Pathway Fellowship program?

Now that the pathway has been created, my hope is to simply try to find some time to meet with our Fellows, provide some mentoring or other input, and to remain in contact with them over time. I am part of the Selections group, which is an interesting piece of the process.

Anything else?

It has been, and will always be about the Fellows, not us.

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