Thought Leadership: Commercialization Engine Trade-Offs for Academic Campus Programs

Author: Anderson, Mohra

The IDEA Center at the University of Notre Dame acts as a commercialization engine for faculty research and inventions. The engine assesses if an invention can realize its full commercial potential, how it addresses a need within the marketplace, and what needs to happen for the invention to succeed beyond the university grounds. This allows university researchers to successfully bring their ideas into the business landscape by putting them through an intensive ‘derisking’ process. Once the invention is disclosed, the process is partitioned into three stages


  1. Risk Assessment
  2. Derisking
  3. Enterprise Acceleration.

Notes: In terms of funding, the IDEA Center does not take equity in businesses that are spun out of the commercialization engine. Other incubators and accelerators, however, often do. For example, Y Combinator obtains 7% of equity from each company in which they invest with their standard deal

Accelerators deliver different benefits to emerging companies. It is important to note that accelerators take equity in turn for participation in the accelerator and access to its resources. If the company is in the process of fundraising, accelerators can directly support and uplift the progress and outlook of the company’s pathway. However, companies not yet ready to fundraise may lose on the benefits of the accelerator should they enter one. This results in losing equity in the company without maximizing the advantages of the accelerator timeline. 

On the Notre Dame campus, the benefit of a company entering an accelerator program is coupled with the Notre Dame network. While demo days do not always result in actionable progress for the company, the common ground between a Notre Dame company and a Notre Dame VC or investor will reliably result in at least an introductory meeting. The idea is that earning a degree at any reputable university will give early companies access to alumni investors, VCs, and startup resources and connections. Accelerators, however, may not always be the right decision for the venture. Several student companies just launched their participation in the 2023 cohort of the IDEA Center’s 6-week Pre-Accelerator program this past month. Information on past cohorts can be found on the IDEA Center website. 

How do different degree programs play into these resources on campus? For an MBA, students will receive information on accounting, finance, marketing, supply chain processes, organization, and leadership. However, this is for the most part, theoretical. While the internship component in many MBA programs allows students to apply their theoretical knowledge to the business landscape, the focus is more on the breadth of knowledge than the experience of introductory business skills. The Notre Dame MBA features modules for business immersion in locations such as San Francisco and Chile, which serves as its experiential learning component. MBA students on Notre Dame’s campus also have access to the IDEA Center and its resources, and can participate in programs such as Race to Revenue, Notre Dame’s startup accelerator. Notre Dame’s MSM program dives deep into business fundamentals such as Accounting, Marketing, Finance, and Management, and focuses on leadership portfolio development. The MSM students can access the IDEA Center as well, but the connection is not quite as effortless. 

The differentiation between these MBA or MSA pipelines and the ESTEEM pipeline is the integration of ESTEEM within the IDEA Center. While ESTEEM does touch on the fundamentals of finance, accounting, and other subjects on which MBA and MSM programs focus, ESTEEM trades the heavy study of subjects for applying the knowledge to various startup-related exercises. In other words, ESTEEM builds upon the theoretical to provide practical education. The ESTEEM program is located within the IDEA Center at Notre Dame, and thus creates a natural network of innovators within the commercialization engine. Further, some coursework occurs directly through the IDEA Center labs and with IDEA Center faculty. This seamless integration of commercialization resources creates a sandbox environment for ESTEEM students, rather than simply offering opportunities to apply corporate theory. Students also have the opportunity to learn the de-risking process of commercialization through part-time positions such as Market Analyst. 

Notre Dame’s commercialization engine and accelerator programs provide business-related students with opportunities to grow their ventures. The Notre Dame network proves influential time and time again through this vessel, particularly through IDEA Center partnerships with venture studios/venture capital firms such as High Alpha Innovation and Elevate Ventures, respectively. The immersion into this ‘sandbox’ is seamless through the ESTEEM program – for MSMs and MBAs, the integration requires just a little more work.