Companies, postsecondary institutions and other large organizations are becoming more intentional about corporate innovation. But sometimes a solution to an internal problem can unexpectedly turn into a startup.
“I started at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2005, hired as a developer to create a research administration system,” said Timothy Savage, Managing Director of Lincoln web application and design startup Bolero. “It started out as just a pre-award system, a group within the office of research.”
The pre-award system at UNL launched in 2006 and began to expand from there. Additional team members joined the effort.
“We had some success with it, and it grew into other areas of research,” Savage said. “Joel (Brehm, Director of User Experience & Design) was already here in a slightly different role, and in the fall of 2007 Shane (Kimbrough, Director of Client Services) came on board.”
The system now serves ten different units at UNL, and has generated interest at other research institutions.
“Over time, there was a lot of interest from other universities, research institutions saying hey, what are you guys doing?” Savage said. “Some inquired about licensing or purchasing, but we really didn’t have a mechanism to do that.”
This led to a business startup.
“About 2011 we decided to form our own startup out of this,” Savage said. “It’s been quite a journey to get us to 2017.”
NUtech Ventures, UNL’s technology commercialization arm, stepped in to help with the licensing process.
“We ended up licensing the technology from NUtech so we could commercialize it,” Savage said. “We had our first client in 2014, doing our work evenings and weekends. Last year, we decided to jump in head first.”
The co-founders are transitioning in phases out of the university setting to full-time at Bolero.
“By the end of the year we’ll all be out, full-time with Bolero,” Savage said. “We didn’t want to pull the rug out from under anybody.”
“We’re putting our fourth client on the system right now,” Savage said. “There are things we’re uncovering every time we bring on somebody new.”
Brehm described the issues they uncover as growing pains.
“The issues we’re running into are not the system doing what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “It’s about doing the same things for different clients, how we do something for this client and that client at the same time.”
Bolero’s signature product is OneRamp, an electronic research administration portal that addresses a spectrum of requirements from proposal management to compliance, covering a wide range of research.
“Compliance gets very involved with human or animal research,” Savage said. “Things like biosafety, radiation safety, and clinical trials.”
Has Bolero focused much attention on marketing?
“Getting our clients has been very organic, word of mouth,” Savage said. “The research community is small and tight-knit. They talk to each other.”
Long-term success requires building credibility in that community.
“We know these things take time, just building trust in the community that we’re here to stay,” Savage said. “We’re not just a fad that will pass.”
What about adding team members?
“We’d love to expand as resources become available,” Savage said. “We’ve had student workers from time to time.”
One of them has been hired on after completing a graduate degree.
“He was familiar with the system at UNL, had experience outside of us and could have gone in another direction,” Kimbrough said. “It was reassuring that he wanted to come back and work with us. He believes in the product.”
Rod Armstrong is Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for AIM in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is a regular contributor to Silicon Prairie News.