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November 2012:

Q&A With Dingman Center Managing Director Elana Fine

By Mark R. Smith, Editor-in-Chief

November 6, 2012

Posted in: News

The primary focus of Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at The Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park, is leading the center in support of its mission and strategic plan. Her key responsibilities include oversight of its student venture incubator, the Dingman Center Angels investor network, business competitions and technology commercialization efforts.

Fine develops and maintains relationships with donors, board members, entrepreneurs-in-residence, the Smith School community, and other campus and regional partners. She also serves as co-chair of the Dean’s Task Force on Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and will be working with the center’s academic director to expand its research activities and curriculum development.

Before she came to the Dingman Center, Fine was an associate and a vice president at the Boston office of Revolution Partners, a national middle-market investment bank that specializes in mergers and acquisitions, as well as private capital advisory for the technology industry. At Revolution, she advised clients on a variety of transactions ranging between $5 million and $100 million, including venture investments for early- and late-stage private companies, sell-side and buy-side acquisitions, and fairness opinions.

Fine also served as Revolution’s chief financial officer from 2003­–06, and administered the firm’s internal controls and its budget as it grew to $10 million annually. And from 1997 to 2000, she was a consultant with Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

She earned an MBA in finance and accounting from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in 2002, and earned a B.S. in Finance, magna cum laude, from UMD’s Smith School in 1997.

What was the Dingman Center’s impetus for starting Innovation Fridays?

It’s an exciting cross-campus initiative that stems from [University of Maryland] President Dr. Wallace Loh’s strategic plan of promoting entrepreneurship and positioning the university in the top echelon of top innovation universities, with the likes of the Masschusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford.

It’s a collaboration with our partners at the Clark School of Engineering here at College Park to link our signature programs, Pitch Dingman and Entrepreneur Office Hours. Going forward, Pitch Dingman and Innovation Office Hours will be held at multiple locations across campus to advise student, faculty and regional entrepreneurs.

In addition, the Dingman Center runs the university’s Cupid’s Cup Business Competition, which is growing in popularity and is advancing to a national stage, supported by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, who is, of course, a Maryland alum. Both of these initiatives are advancing the university’s profile in ways that are unmatched at other campuses across the country.

Why does the Dingman Center, which is based at Maryland’s flagship state university, also cater to startups in Virginia and Delaware? Does the center have a strategy for keeping graduates of its incubator/program operating in Maryland after they leave?

We think of the Dingman Center as a catalyst for business development across the mid-Atlantic region. We’re only 10 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and it’s not much farther to Northern Virginia, so it’s hard to keep our efforts focused on a small geographic area.

For instance, we often collaborate with The George Washington University and Georgetown, and we interact with various entities in Northern Virginia. But we also work with the [Maryland] Technology & Development Corp. [TEDCO] and angel investors in our state, as well as those organizations and individuals across the capital region. We see it as a rising tide lifting all ships; when we work across the region, everybody benefits.

Are there certain types of startups that you target?

No. We are agnostic of sector. Our goal is to encourage as many students as possible to experience the entrepreneurial process, in some way, be it big or small. That’s part of the student experience that we’re trying to inject.

And know that you don’t have to start the next Under Armour when you’re here. An endeavor can be a coffee shop or the development of a water bottle that holds water and Gatorade. Also know that students fail here and they succeed here, too. Failure, and learning from it, is an important part of building a career as an entrepreneur.

What’s your venture capital climate like these days?

We are seeing a shift concerning where our early stage investors are coming from. They’re more involved in the angel market than ever, especially since it’s not as expensive to start a company as it used to be in certain sectors, like technology, for instance.

All told, we’ve invested more than $4 million in 13 companies in the past 12 months. But we are anticipating a very interesting next 18 months while we see if these angel investments are followed by larger venture capital financings, which is what’s needed to keep the momentum in the startup community.

How much money does the Dingman Center Angels network have at hand? How are funding efforts for the center progressing?

We don’t work that way; we don’t manage a fund. This is a different model, and it’s unique to what the investors want to invest in. Each investor makes their investment decision. And they don’t always agree about what constitutes a good investment, which explains the wide variety of startups that have been nurtured here.

What new programs is the center developing?

The biggest thing we just launched is our EnTERPreneur Academy. It’s a way to celebrate the entrepreneur community and allows us to assist students at various stages in the venture creation process. We also spend a lot of time matching students with content experts who have specific expertise.

How successful has your tech transfer program been?

Tech transfer is one area where most universities really struggle, but we expect it to pick up with Dr. Loh’s initiatives and via our partnership with UMBC. We have a great angel investor network, but we need more resources to process patents for those efforts that have the greatest marketability.

What will the priorities at the Dingman Center be during the next five years?

We have a significant number of strong assets, so we want to grow those assets and take more of our successful programs across campus to colleges such as Journalism, Agriculture, Public Health and Public Policy.

We are also exploring how to best collaborate with other less obvious disciplines, like arts and humanities, so we can think about innovative ideas that not only create economic and social value, but aesthetic value as well. We are learning that entrepreneurship and innovation mean a lot of things to a lot of people — the more we listen, the more creatively we can think about how to grow during the next few years.

Given President Loh’s commitment to these initiatives, there is also a significant opportunity to inject our experiential programs into the curriculum. Until recently, a lot of our time at the Dingman Center has been spent on the practice of entrepreneurship — but there is a lot of conversation around creating courses that expose more students to venture creation, angel investing or technology commercialization.

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