Few if any people know Georgia’s entrepreneurial landscape better than Lee Herron. In a storied career, Lee worked as a veterinarian, launched and ran three companies and grew a commercialization effort at Georgia Tech. After all that, he spent 16 years leading GRA’s program that seeds and shapes companies around university inventions. Now called Innovation & Entrepreneurship, the program so far has generated over $2.3 billion in venture capital for the projects and startups.

In early spring 2024, Lee announced his retirement from GRA and began a new role as a GRA Senior Advisor, joining a corps of seasoned executives who guide startups launched out of Georgia’s university labs. As he prepared for this transition, he shared a few insights into the arduous and rewarding journey of university entrepreneurship.

Can we start at the beginning of your connection with GRA? You’re credited with helping to shape the venture development program years before you joined the Alliance.
At the time, I worked with several people at the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) located at Georgia Tech to pilot the GRA-supported ventures program there. The program started in 2003 and was called VentureLab. We would go speak at faculty meetings to engage faculty in the program. Steve Derezinski, the program’s founder, would set up a table in the basement of the Love Building and sit there all day, talking to any faculty member who came by. “Let me tell you about VentureLab,” he’d say. It worked!

In early 2005, GRA extended the program to other schools, Emory and UGA in particular, and had some good success. As the GRA ventures program grew to involve other institutions and more faculty entrepreneurs, my involvement with GRA increased. 

What’s the story of your coming to work at GRA?
In 2008, Susan Shows was managing the program from the corner of her desk while also serving as the Senior VP for GRA. Startup development was becoming a more important part of GRA’s mission, and it needed someone full-time. When they asked me to come aboard, it was a no-brainer.

Did you look at similar programs around the country as a kind of model?
There really weren’t any. But my experience at Georgia Tech in working with the Coulter Foundation, which supported biomedical engineering innovation, was kind of a head start. Georgia Tech assigned me to help the foundation select universities to receive funding support for translational research. Part of that involved looking at how top universities were moving technology from the lab to the marketplace. I saw a lot of best practices.

What about your own experience as a startup founder shaped your view of this world? And did it guide you at ATDC, and later at GRA?
It had a profound influence. I negotiated technology licenses from Georgia Tech, UGA and Emory and formed companies around them. I knew the struggles you go through as a startup founder. The challenges with raising money, building a team, licensing technology from a university. I learned a lot from that process. It was kind of like getting a “street MBA.”

How are university scientists who start companies different from other entrepreneurs?
There’s more of a tendency to stay in their comfort zone, to stick with research, their first job. At the same time, scientists fundamentally like challenges. So, to many, starting a company is another kind of challenge. And it’s rejuvenating because it’s something different. The reward is bringing a discovery or invention to benefit people.

What would you say is the single greatest challenge for a university scientist embarking on the startup journey?
Understanding which questions are really important to ask. An inventor with a promising product sometimes underestimates all that needs to be addressed and the questions that need to be answered in the path to market. Until you know the questions, there’s no way to get to the answers.

Would you say asking the right questions is the advice you most often repeat to university researchers?
It could well be. Early on, it’s crucial to understand a market inside and out. That begins with figuring out what questions need to be asked.

What other advice did you commonly offer on behalf of GRA?
Our advice helps, but a scientist starting a company needs the advice of others too, so we help make connections to advisors. We also emphasize the importance of bringing in experienced leadership. Early on, a faculty member may be perfectly fine as CEO. With a good board of directors, they can go a while with a hybrid management structure. But when the company starts getting outside investment and preparing to scale operations, it typically needs seasoned leadership other than a faculty member, and we help find those leaders, too.

Aside from a new name – Innovation & Entrepreneurship – what about GRA’s startup development is different today than when you joined 16 years ago? How has the program evolved?
We’ve got well over 200 companies, and we’ve funded close to 1,000 projects. But aside from the growth, we’ve become more sophisticated in reviewing applications for funding and asking questions. We know the determinants of success. Good science is an absolute, but it’s more than just good science to make a successful [commercialization] project. It’s having the right team in place as well as the right market dynamics.

What does GRA’s program give university scientists that they really can’t get anywhere else?
I don’t know of any other organization in Georgia, and maybe nationwide, that provides both seed funding and entrepreneurial counsel for university-based technologies. Some programs provide grants to private companies, but they get involved only after a company is formed. We typically get involved before that point.

Sometimes we give hard advice. We emphasize the importance of having the right advisors involved and in identifying the markets. That’s unique to GRA – we don’t just write checks. We want to optimize the chances for success.

Greater Yield is a GRA initiative you helped start to bring university inventions to farms and food producers in Georgia. What have you learned about the needs of Georgia’s ag industry?
Agriculture is so diverse, and farms and distributors and retail outfits are very different in terms of their needs. But across all, labor is a real critical issue. Last year, the minimum wage for H-2A labor increased to $14 an hour. If a farmer isn’t getting increased prices in the markets, their profitability is eroded.

What else?
Input costs have also gone up tremendously. The cost of fertilizer has increased. Seed costs are up. Also, compliance with various regulations can be really challenging.

How is GRA working with Georgia’s universities to tackle some of these problems?
Universities that have close contact with extension agents and farmers already address practical needs and solve problems. We’re trying to help them do more. I remember spending time with a UGA extension agent at the Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center in Lyons who does a lot of work with Vidalia onions. I’ve been down to his research farm several times to see what his daily life was like. Through Greater Yield, we started working with a UGA startup, Inverse AI, that has technology to help automate sorting and packing onions, which lessens reliance on labor that’s hard to find.

Universities have people and services to help get inventions and discoveries to market. How does GRA fit into their process?
The university tech transfer offices provide a valuable service. They’re the gatekeepers for moving technology into the marketplace, and we work hand-in-hand with them. GRA is very Georgia-focused, in that we want more companies taking root here in Georgia. The state charges us with creating high-tech, high-paying jobs for Georgians in start-up companies based on university technology. So, we make investments and provide advice at a crucial point in time, when an invention that has promise needs resources for those first steps toward becoming a company. 

Some of the focus from a tech transfer office is on licensing to an existing company rather than a start-up. Most of the technologies we see aren’t sufficiently risk-mitigated to be licensed to an existing company. By helping the researcher go through the startup process, they have the opportunity to establish the validity of the technology and generate some revenue, which often gets a larger company interested. Over the course of several years, we have had several start-ups acquired by larger companies with the acquired company remaining in the state and expanding operations.

Are there more inventions in Georgia’s university labs that you think deserve to see the light of day? 
Absolutely. We’re just scratching the surface in terms of potential. We’ll always need scientists to conduct basic research, but if we’re halfway effective at getting what’s potentially translatable out the door, that’s a tremendous success for Georgia.

  • This conversation is edited from two interviews with Lee in February and March 2024.