My Soapbox: Rodney D'Souza, founder, INKUbator

Rodney D'Souza is building a hive in Northern Kentucky. His new iNKUbator at Northern Kentucky University is designed to help students turn their ideas into feasible business proposals and prepare them for the competitive world of startup accelerators. The 32-year-old professor explains his brainchild to Soapbox's Elissa Yancey.

Soapbox: What makes the iNKUbator unique?
D'Souza: I founded the INKUBATOR at NKU through research. Examples include "The private equity market in the USA: Lessons from volatility," by Jeffrey Sohl in Venture Capital: An International Journal of Entrepreneurial Finance 2003; and
"Safety in Numbers or Hunting in Packs? The Impact of Angel Networks on Venture Financing," by Rebecca White, Rodney D'Souza, and Giles Hertz in Academy of management conference 2006.

What I found was that there was a funding gap for really early stage or idea-stage entrepreneurs. In addition to this funding gap, there was a lack of targeted resources for these very early stag ideas. In our region itself, we have great resources like the ezone, biologic, The Brandery and Cincytech USA. But to apply to these accelerators, one needs to have more than an idea, a strong team, a good understanding of the market, competition etc. The INKUBATOR is designed to fulfill this very need and help idea-stage entrepreneurs get to the next level.

The beauty of the INKUBATOR is that it does not compete with any of the area programs, but functions more as a feeder (farm system) to the area accelerators, providing them with local talent and deal flow.

To design the INKUBATOR, I studied a number of accelerators -- Sparta Labs, The University of Tampa; Spark, Florida Atlantic University; Babson Hatcheries; Accelerator works, Atlanta; The Brandery; Tech-stars; Y-combinator; Lean Launchpad, Stanford; and Google-Umbono, South Africa. I also went and met with directors of some of these programs and learned a lot about what works well.

SB: What about the startup culture appeals to you and how has your past experience led to this new post?
D'Souza: I have been involved with the startup culture in the tri-state area for just over 11 years now. I am really impressed with the progress that has been made over this period. In 2002-03, thanks in part to a grant from the state of Kentucky, working with Rebecca White, I designed an assessment tool for all the innovation and commercialization centers (ICCs) for the state. This tool was designed to help these ICCs in assessing entrepreneurs and their businesses and for determining their readiness for seeking equity funds and to provide consistency for the ICC and IC programs on a statewide basis.

The design of this tool involved a thorough understanding of the different resources available and what investors in the mid-west were looking for. In addition, I mentor companies at accelerators like the Brandery and ezone, and have developed a good understanding of what resources exist for early-stage entrepreneurs, and the criteria these accelerators are looking for when accepting companies. Finally, being an entrepreneur myself, I have a really good idea of what it takes to start and run a company.

SB: What kind of skills or personality traits do you think it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
D'Souza: It is really difficult to define a successful entrepreneur in terms of traits. Skills, however are a different story. I truly believe that people can be trained to be entrepreneurs if they are taught the right skills. Skills such as understanding one's knowledge and resource gaps, and being willing to fill them with the right people. The skill of always hiring better that one's self. The skill to accept when an idea or concept is failing and being willing and able to pivot accordingly. Being coach-able and willing to accept people's feedback. Most importantly, hard work and persistence - I think Edison said something like: the value of an idea lies in the using of it. I could not agree more

SB: Why do you think Greater Cincinnati makes a good home for startups?
D'Souza: Greater Cincinnati has access to a number of really neat resources in the form of a strong knowledge base with universities such as NKU, UC and Xavier, giving startups access to great, talented employees; some of the best Fortune 500 companies like P&G and Macy's, a great cost of living (especially helpful when starting a company), a really friendly and helpful culture - people who really want to see the entrepreneurial eco-system thrive (again really helpful for startups).

SB: You started your academic career at NKU. Then you received two masters' degrees and a PhD elsewhere. How does it feel to be back and how is it different now?
D'Souza: When starting my MBA, I was accepted to schools such as UMass, UNC and GSU. I chose NKU because of an email I got from the MBA director (at the time), Dr. Tom Cate. He, along with other professors and mentors such as Dr. Rebecca White, Dr. Tracey Sigler, Dr. Stephanie Hughes, Dr. Denise Leuthge, Dr. Ken Rhee and Dr. Bertie Greer (all my professors who are now colleagues), really inculcated in me the importance of going above and beyond to make sure that students achieve their true potential. It is this vision that in part drove me when I see that students at NKU have the potential, but lack the means and resources to achieve that potential.

Because I knew, understood and liked the culture at NKU so much, and what the university stood for, when I applied for jobs out of my PhD program, I only applied to one place - NKU.

SB: What do you hope the NKUbator accomplishes in one year? In five years?
D'Souza: We are accepting up to five student teams per year. The iNKUbator program is a 12-week program that will start in the beginning of May and end in July. It is not college-specific, and is open to every student on NKU's campus. The program is also open to recent grads, so any current NKU student or recent grad who has an idea, and would like to apply to the program can do so by March 18. Applicants will be notified as to acceptance in to the program at the end of March.

Best case scenario, I would love if all the teams who went thought this program applied to, and are accepted to the area accelerators like The Brandery, biologic, Cincytech and Uptech. Going forward, I would like to have this program run a couple of times in the year.
SB: What are the greatest challenges you face in making that vision a reality?
D'Souza: As with any startup, the biggest challenges we face right now are funding this program and finding the right people to work with student teams as well as people to help run the program.

I am extremely blessed to be working with a dean such as Dr. Rick Kolbe. This might come across as brown-nosing, but the guy just gets it. He truly understands entrepreneurship and what it takes to make something successful. In his short time here at NKU, he has been one of my biggest supporters, and I have nothing but good things to say about him. The iNKUbator would not have been possible without his guidance and support.

I am the founding director of the iNKUbator, however, I need good people to help make it successful. As far as good people go, Zac Strobl is another person without whom this program would not be where it is today. Zac is a former student of mine who worked with a startup in Chicago before he moved back to Cincinnati late last year. He has been instrumental in spreading the word across campus, getting in front of as many students he can, and when I said that to be successful, you need to hire better than one's self, with Zac, I truly believe that I did. Right now, I can only afford to pay him part-time for his full-time work.

I also have a very strong and dedicated advisory board. My board members include Tim Ferguson (Associate Provost for Technology and Director of the Center for Applied Informatics at NKU), Jack Geiger (Chief operating officer at Munoz Brandz), Dave Knox (CMO Rockfish Interactive and co-founder of the Brandery), Carolyn Pione Micheli (communications director for CincyTech), Keith Schneider (Managing Director at bioLOGIC), Dov Rosenberg (Director at Allos Ventures), Daniel Tweedall (President/Owner Global Tanning Solutions) and David Willbrand (Partner at Thomson Hine LLP). They have all been instrumental in growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the region, and I am very lucky to have them working closely with me and the students at NKU.
SB: What would help you turn your visions into reality?
D'Souza: We are currently seeking donations as well as volunteers who will be willing to work with some of the best and brightest NKU has to offer.

Photos by Scott Beseler
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