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Lab2Market: An Ending Leading to A Beginning

Lab2Market is a three-month program designed to speed up the commercialization process of research results from laboratory prototypes to product-market fits with early-stage funding.

Lab2Market brings together multiple stakeholders to provide funding for research to move from the laboratory to the market quickly.

A key principle for developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem, according to the well-known entrepreneur Brad Feld’s Boulder Thesis, is that “the leaders must have a long-term commitment.”

Brad elaborates that leaders should take a view of at least 20 years, adding that a view which is refreshed every year (thus extending the horizon) is always looking 20 years out. If this concept is still unclear, then the inauguration of Lab2Market on 21 May 2021 is a notable example of the principle.

Lab2Market is a three-month program designed to speed up the commercialization process of research results from laboratory prototypes to product-market fits with early-stage funding. The program’s official launch brings BK Holdings’ relentless efforts to get such a university-based incubation program up and running, with support from Swiss EP and many others, to the finish line, while also marking the start of a long journey for the evolving Lab2Market initiative.

The story of Lab2Market can be traced back to a discussion between BKHoldings CEO Nguyen Trung Dung and Linus Wiebe, the CEO of LU Holdings and Director of Innovation at Sweden’s Lund University, in 2016. When Linus first visited BK Holdings as a Swiss EP short-term expert, he was impressed by not only the upscale coworking space BKHUP, but also the hard-working attitude and entrepreneurial spirit of the young entrepreneurs and engineering teams working there day and night.

It didn’t take long for Dung and Linus to realize the similarities between BK Holdings and LU Holdings. The former was in charge of transferring knowledge and commercializing technology generated by Bach Khoa University (under the Hanoi University of Science and Technology - HUST) – the top engineering university in Vietnam. The latter, meanwhile, aimed to create new companies and licenses based on knowledge from Lund University, which was founded in 1666 and is consistently ranked among the world’s top 100 universities.

The discussion was so fruitful that Linus was invited to visit BK Holdings again six months later. But when asked whether BK Holdings offered any incubation or acceleration programs which university researchers could visit for support, Dung had no answer, although his team had done commercialization projects and created spin-off companies.

Since then, with support from national and municipal innovation and entrepreneurship development programs, including the 844 Program from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), the 1665 Program from the Ministry of Education and Technology (MOET), and the 4889 Program from the government of Hanoi, BK Holdings has organized many training courses to equip researchers, lecturers, and founders with foundational knowledge on innovation and entrepreneurship.

There were also mentor training courses which led to a number of mentoring relationships between lecturers, experts, business executives and young founders, as well as entrepreneurial students. Additionally, the concept of co-managing incubation programs was tried with the Startup Vietnam Foundation – a partner organization of Swiss EP. These efforts established BK Holdings as a nationally recognized role model for university-based entrepreneurship support organizations.

But as beneficial as these activities were, they still did not provide an answer to Linus’ question regarding BK Holdings’ incubation and acceleration programs designed to support university researchers.

In the meantime, other experts arranged by Swiss EP continued to visit BK Holdings and helped the team to develop and build their capacity. For example, Mark Wolf and June Choi discussed investment theses and how to create angel investor groups in 2017.

2018 was particularly intensive and began with experts Todd Lemley and Keith Ippel sharing their experiences from the entrepreneurship support programs at Techstars and SPRING. The Valhalla Private Capital team, led by Jan Lederman, built investment readiness for startup teams and founders. Bryce North trained founders on effective pitching. Then, Ameeta Soni introduced the concept of recruiting alumni business champions to support young researchers as mentors and angel investors.

While all of this laid the groundwork for Lab2Market, the name was mentioned for the first time during a brainstorming session between the BK Holdings and Swiss EP in July 2019 intended to define a substantial commercial service for the holdings firm.

The curriculum was not a challenge, but attracting university researchers and corporate partners, in addition to financing the program itself, proved more difficult. Top-down commitment from university leadership was necessary to get the ball rolling.

Martin Webber came to Vietnam in August 2019 as a Swiss EP short-term expert, with the mission to discuss the role of incubation and acceleration programs and relationships between the programs and top universities as a success factor with HUST, MOST and the Hanoi Department of Planning and Investment. These discussions helped BK Holdings gain consensus and support from the top.

The first trial of Lab2Market was in September 2019, with four weeks of support from entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) Ameeta Soni. Ameeta’s experience as a board member of the investment committee at Maroon Venture Partners Fund investing in companies linked to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst was invaluable. She helped the BK Holdings team finalize the program curriculum and prepare templates for the whole process, from research and team recruitment to mentor matching and corporate partnership exploration to early-stage fundraising.

Four groups took part in this trial of Lab2Market. A team of HUST students making drinking straws from bamboo sought help to commercialize their disinfecting and processing technology, a team led by a HUST researcher who wanted to define a business model for their oil extraction technology business, and two tech startups led by women founders who wanted to raise funds for expansion.

This first ‘batch’ participated in training workshops on customer and value proposition, go-to-market, and business models led by the EIR with the BK Holdings’ incubation program manager, Pham Tuan Hiep. There were 1-on-1 mentoring sessions and bi-weekly group lunches where teams shared their signs of progress and challenges.

Despite their satisfaction with these services, not every team got what they needed the most: early funding. The CEO of BK Holdings assessed this experience from the first batch and determined that Lab2Market needed to provide financing solutions for the research teams to be effectively supported by the program.

The enforcement of Decree No.38/2018/ND-CP, which created a legal approach to investing in startups in Vietnam, offered a timely chance for BK Holdings to register the first alumni investment fund in Vietnam. The effort was supported by former Minister of Science and Technology Dr. Nguyen Quan, who is also an alumnus of HUST.

With Dr. Quan’s leadership, a handful of alumni business champions funded and introduced the BK Fund in January 2021. BK Fund offers seed funding to technology-based startups, especially those founded by HUST students, lecturers, researchers, and alumni.

In order to assist BK Holdings in preparing a business plan and investment procedures for the BK Fund, Swiss EP expert Patrick Kedziora worked with the investment team at BK Holdings on a remote EIR mission (due to the COVID-19 situation) in the second half of 2020. The result was that the BK Fund was structured to be co-managed by BK Holdings and ThinkZone Ventures, another partner organization of Swiss EP and an experienced startup investor whose founding CEO is also a HUST alumnus.

At this point, BK Holdings asked itself whether Lab2Market was ready as a funding source. Dr. Dung’s answer was “not yet,” and he pointed out an important part of technology transfer and commercialization that was missing: securing the intellectual property.

So BK Holdings added a new partner to the Lab2Market “consortium”: Questel. Questel is a global leader in IP solutions and tech with a strong interest in Vietnam. The long journey to design, fund, and implement Lab2Market had finally reached the finish line!

The launch on 21 May is an important stepping stone for Lab2Market, as new challenges present themselves and obstacles inevitably appear.

One certainty is that an evolving Lab2Market will keep moving forward. Swiss EP EIR Aaron Everhart is currently on a three-month mission with BK Holdings, sharing his expertise and, just as importantly, many templates from running Hatch’s incubation program in Vietnam since 2014. We are confident of Lab2Market’s success, because the leadership of BK Holdings has shown their long-term commitment to developing entrepreneurial ecosystems, not only at HUST, but also nation- and region-wide.

Lab2Market is a three-month program to speed up the commercialization process from laboratory prototype to product-market fit. The program is co-organized by BK Holdings, the National Startup Support Center, BK Fund, and Swiss EP. Ten selected entrepreneurial research teams receive intensive training on developing customer persona, test markets, and validating technology and product comparative advantages with early adopters in the first month. The second month focuses on identifying business models and building sales capacity. The research teams explore markets and partnerships in big cities through field trips to Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang. In the third month, Lab2Market connects research teams with corporate partners and business angels. Investment-ready teams have a chance to exhibit products and technologies and raise funds from business angels and early-stage VCs in a two-day graduation ceremony. BK Fund, Javis Ventures, and five business angels commit to invest up to US$50,000 to each research team that is able to complete Lab2Market. Lab2Market focuses on four domains: data technology and smart systems, energy and sustainable environment, new materials, and health science and technology. Research teams are welcome to apply.