Thomas Edison often receives credit for inventing the electric light bulb, though his real accomplishment was in making the device — as well as the phonograph and motion picture camera — commercially successful. That focus on commercializing innovation is now providing the foundation for a new venture bearing Edison’s name at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Launched by a multi-year grant from the Charles A. Edison Fund — which is named for the inventor’s son, a successful businessman and former governor of New Jersey — the Georgia Tech Edison Fund will provide seed funding for early-stage technology companies that have a close association with Georgia Tech.
“We will focus on startups at the very early stage, because that’s the hardest money for an entrepreneur to find,” explained Stephen Fleming, Georgia Tech’s chief commercialization officer and manager of the new fund. “Once companies have customers, a product and some traction in the marketplace, they can interest larger investors.”
In his role as Georgia Tech’s chief commercialization officer and director of Commercialization Services within the Enterprise Innovation Institute, Fleming helps faculty members, graduate students and others launch new companies through Georgia Tech’s VentureLab. He sees first-hand how difficult locating early funding can be.
“There is certainly a perception that there’s not enough early-stage capital in Atlanta,” he said. “The Georgia Tech Edison Fund will not by itself be a silver bullet that solves this problem, but I think it will help by putting new energy into and a new focus on early-stage financing.”
Fleming plans to make the requirement for a Georgia Tech connection as broad as possible. For example, the Fund will invest in companies that may be founded by Georgia Tech faculty, students and graduates; licensing technology from Georgia Tech; sponsoring research at Georgia Tech; or even hiring a large number of Georgia Tech alumni.
“The Georgia Tech Edison Fund is for the whole community,” Fleming added. “There are a lot of Georgia Tech threads running through the entrepreneur community in Atlanta and Georgia. This really won’t limit our capability very much because a lot of deals we are going to want to make are well connected to Georgia Tech.”
The Fund will be “evergreen,” meaning it will reinvest the proceeds from any liquidity events back into other opportunities. Fleming is establishing an investment committee to help guide decisions. The investments will generally be less than $250,000.
The Georgia Tech Edison Fund has already made its first investment in Pramana, a member company of the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) that is commercializing Internet technology developed in Institute’s College of Computing.
Fleming says the Charles Edison Fund and Georgia Tech are natural collaborators.
“We are excited to be working with them because Edison is one of the instantly recognizable brand names around the world,” he explained. “Edison means innovation, invention and creativity — all of which are things we are trying to do. This helps us get our message across very quickly.”
For potential donors, the Fund offers a unique opportunity.
“This is a very different charitable giving opportunity for people who are interested in entrepreneurship and in helping the next generation of entrepreneurs,” Fleming said. “These potential donors may remember how difficult it was to get their businesses started, and would like to give something forward to the next generation.”
Donations to the Georgia Tech Edison Fund will be completely targeted to entrepreneurs. The Fund is not charging a management fee, nor is it paying carried interest to the managers, Fleming noted.
Gifts to the Fund will be received by Georgia Advanced Technology Ventures, a 501(c)3 non-profit affiliated with Georgia Tech, and so will be tax-deductible. Donors will receive no financial benefit from investments made by the Fund, he added.
Beyond seed-level investments, the Fund will also offer entrepreneurs the opportunity to learn from donors who may wish to provide mentoring or service on corporate advisory boards. “The level of energy and enthusiasm in the entrepreneur community is really infectious,” Fleming said. “The chance to work with entrepreneurs like these even in small ways will be good for donors who are interested in it.”
For the Charles Edison Fund, the new Georgia Tech initiative represents an opportunity to continue the tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship established by the famed inventor. The collaboration with Georgia Tech is the first university partnership for the Edison organization, which supports a broad range of educational activities aimed at keeping the Edison tradition alive.
“This is a novel idea that I don’t think has been tried before,” said John Keegan, chairman and president of the Charles Edison Fund. “What makes it novel is that it provides support to faculty members whose ideas are literally in the pre-natal stage, before the concept is developed enough to take to a venture capitalist to seek funding.”
Georgia Tech alumnus Edward Allman, a long-time member of the Charles Edison Fund board of directors, played a key role in advocating the funding to establish the Georgia Tech Edison Fund.
“I firmly believe that the Georgia Tech Edison Fund will be the starting point for some of our nation’s most promising new technologies,” Allman said. “Georgia Tech was founded on a tradition of taking theory and applying it to the real world in ways that make people’s lives better. Thomas Edison once said that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, which reminds me of what life was all about at Tech. I am thrilled to be a part of the joining of these organizations and look forward to great progress.”
For more information about the Georgia Tech Edison Fund: (404-385-2360) or (firstname.lastname@example.org).
— Dan Treadaway in Georgia Tech’s Institute Communications and Public Affairs contributed to this article.
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