Merlin Mentors helps fledgling entrepreneurs learn tricks for success

When Atif Hashmi was planning a startup a few years ago, he sought out others who’d been down the same road.

Hashmi, a native of Pakistan who earned his doctorate in in computer engineering from UW-Madison, ended up connecting with Merlin Mentors, a group of volunteer serial entrepreneurs who operate out of the university’s Office of Corporate Relations. It’s just one of the functions of OCR, which bills itself as the front door to UW-Madison for companies of all sizes – even those that exist only in the minds of their creators.

Hashmi said his company – Thalchemy – is developing a technology that can make everything from smart phones to medical devices more sensitive to their surroundings. It hopes to do this by using the thalamus, the relay center for sensory data flowing into the brain, as a model.

The nascent firm has received grants from the federal and state agencies to get it off the ground, he said. Thalchemy – which Hashmi started in 2012 with Andrew Nere and Mikko Lipasti, a UW-Madison engineering professor – is now seeking backing from venture capitalists.

“The guys I worked with in Merlin Mentors were a big help, a great resource,” said Hashmi. “The whole experience was very useful and educational. They helped me get answers to my questions, which made the whole process of starting a company less overwhelming and more manageable.”

Dennis Barnum, a UW-Madison alum who launched half-a-dozen high-tech companies himself, was one of the four mentors who worked with Hashmi. Barnum, who has a master’s in nuclear engineering, was so impressed by Thalchemy’s potential that he has signed on as the startup’s director of operations.

“I got excited about it because it’s the kind of disruptive technology that could result in a major company,” said Barnum, who has been on about a dozen mentoring teams over the past four years that have resulted in 10 new companies.

“We guide them along, kind of like a border collie,” he said with a chuckle. “We’re not consultants, but we do help direct them to the right pen, so to speak. We listen to their issues and then give them the benefit of our experience. But the idea is to help them learn how to navigate the process, not just give them the answer.”

Barnum said Merlin program is a winner because it focuses on the entrepreneur rather than the business.

“Some companies won’t succeed,” he said. “But the process of trying to make it work is extremely valuable education for these people. We try to help make them a good entrepreneur because they may fail with the first one or two efforts. But by the third attempt, they know the ropes.”

Alan Dines, the assistant director of OCR, came up with the idea for the program about six years ago to help boost the number and quality of entrepreneurs in the Madison area through mentoring.

He said the name Merilin was created to evoke the prospect of “magical outcomes.” It’s also an acronym that stands for “Madison Entrepreneur Resource, Learning and Innovation Network.” He credits Toni Sikes and Terry Sivesind, for getting the program going. It has been funded by University Research Park since its inception.

“That acronym is kind of a hopeless mix of somewhat contrived nouns,” he mused. “But people get it. We got about 100 successful entrepreneurs to sign on as mentors and so far, we’ve had more than 80 startups be created, of which more than 50 are still going.”

He said the mentors hold meetings about once a month and a quarter to a third of them usually show up. They have lunch, hear applicants talk about their business concepts and tell what kind of help they are seeking. Once the would-be entrepreneurs leave, the group reviews them and forms teams of mentors to help the applicants.

The meetings also sometimes have speakers. The most recent gathering featured a talk by John Biondi, who is the director of the Discovery to Product (d2p) Initiative at UW-Madison and a serial entrepreneur.

Dines said potential “mentees” are often referred to the program by the business school, law school business clinic and startup competitions on campus. He also does two-hour office sessions each week at 100 State, a collaborative workspace in downtown Madison where he meets many aspiring entrepreneurs.

“We sort through applicants every month, then an intake committee does an initial interview and they make the determination about how ready they are to go before the whole group and get a team,” he said.

Dines stressed that the applicants don’t need to have the plans “for the next Facebook or a cure for cancer” to be accepted into the program.

“We’re not here to judge the business or its prospects,” he said. “Our goal is to encourage the development of a quality group of entrepreneurs here in Madison. We think that can be done building out a company that might just be a small consulting firm.

“One company being mentored now is a yoga studio, which probably won’t be a nationwide consortium. But it can provide a living for the woman who is running it and a lot of satisfaction.”

Dines praised Bonnie Reinke, whose Eso-Technologies medical device company won the Governor’s Business Plan Contest in 2009, as a Merlin success story.

“But really the biggest triumph is the growth in the quality entrepreneur cadre in Madison that this has fostered,” he said.

“Moreover, mentors enjoy it because they get the opportunity to give something back. Another benefit is that this has helped develop a community of successful entrepreneurs. Many of them didn’t know each other before they met here. That’s pretty cool, too.”

— By Brian E. Clark For