When Joel Henry stepped away from his job teaching computer science at the University of Montana to attend law school, he couldn’t know that his interest in searching piles of electronic legal data would spin into a new company.
But with the support of the Technology Transfer Office at UM, and backed with the school’s support, Henry’s new business has won high reviews. While it claims just four employees, it’s now on the verge of growth.
“We looked at ways to find legal evidence in enormous amounts of digital information, like emails and documents,” Henry said. “We worked on it for about six months. Our tool now allows you to search digital information based on concepts your looking for, not specific words.”
The results led to the licensing of Agile Legal Technology, and it marked the latest venture to evolve from university-sponsored research.
Though Henry is now working to raise capital, he attributes his early success to UM’s push for innovation and applied research. The school will host its first Big Data Week starting Saturday with a cyber triathlon.
“The Technology Transfer Office at the university has been wonderful, working with us to build the software and putting in place a royalty stream that works for the university and allows our business to grow,” Henry said. “It’s a win for the university and it demonstrates the value of this Cyber Innovation Lab.”
Joe Fanguy, director of the university’s Technology Transfer Office, said the effort has worked to streamline the startup process, prompting more faculty members to step forward with a business idea.
“Our strategy is going to focus more on leveraging our assets to impact the local economy,” Fanguy said. “When you’re dealing with an early stage company, you want to do all you can to move it along and see what happens. We can make that a standardized and straight-forward process.”
Five years ago, Fanguy said, it was rare for a faculty member to come forward with a business idea. The office now sees around five concepts a year and interest in the program is high.
While not all ventures will succeed, he added, his office can help lower the barriers that often serve as deterrents to new startups.
“By streamlining our process, when they decide they want to try this route, they don’t have to go through that six-month, hard-line negotiation and decide it’s not worth their time,” said Fanguy. “We won’t have success if we don’t have people trying.”
Henry contributed the early success of his startup to those who went before him, including Alex Philp, founder and president of GCS Research, Sherri Davidoff, founder of LMG Security, and David Bell, president and CEO of the ALPS Corporation.
Software developed by Agile analyzes “dozens or scores of gigabytes” of digital information and presents the information back to the user in natural language. Henry said it also allows users to search data for concepts surrounding keywords.
“This business is a direct outgrowth of the efforts of Philp, Davidoff and Bell, and the university building a lab and allowing people like us to take advantage of it,” Henry said. “The support here also comes from the Technology Transfer Office. Their ability to guide me through the process and connect me to the right people has been a tremendous support.”
Saying the community has reached the critical mass necessary to mentor new startups, Fanguy points to the success of other local ventures, including Rivertop Renewables, which recently landed $26 million from outside investments, including Cargill and First Green Investors.
The MonTEC facility on East Broadway, where Rivertop is based, is now full, marking the program’s growth over the past two years. Talk has now turned toward expanding the incubator.
“There’s access now to greater resources – whether you view that from a mentorship or a capital perspective – than what existed five years ago,” Fanguy said. “Rivertop will have some pretty high-level investors who will be in our community on a fairly regular basis. Five years ago, we couldn’t have paid people to come and do it, so to speak.”