Private capital firm launches for agricultural science research and development

08/29/2014 9:53 AM

08/29/2014 9:02 PM

Kansas State University, Bicknell Family Holding Co. and Michael Helmstetter, former CEO of MRIGlobal, have founded a private capital development firm designed to aid research and business development in animal health, agriculture and food science.

Helmstetter, who led a Florida startup, BTR Labs Inc., before he joined MRIGlobal, is chief executive of the new company, Technology Acceleration Partners LLC.

The founding investors in the Leawood-based firm, dubbed TechAccel, include Terry Dunn, CEO of JE Dunn Construction Group; Marty Bicknell, CEO of Mariner Holdings; Paul DeBruce, CEO of DeBruce Cos.; Gary Forsee, former CEO of Sprint; Greg Graves, CEO of Burns & McDonnell; Cliff Illig, vice chairman of Cerner; Roshann Parris, CEO of Parris Communications; and John Sherman, CEO of MLP Holdings.

The investors, who also serve as the TechAccel board, have decided to keep the amount of their investments private.

Helmstetter said they expect to finance six projects a year — “significant projects, certainly in the millions of dollars.”

“Here you have a wonderful idea with a first-class entrepreneur in Michael,” said Graves, one of the investors. “And so when that’s true in KC, the startup capital was quickly there.”

Helmstetter left MRIGlobal 18 months ago. In September 2013, he said he met with the investor group in a Mariner Holdings conference room in Leawood to pitch the private investment firm idea.

“We spent five hours togther on a Saturday morning, helping me decide to move forward and hone strategy,” Helmstetter said. “Obviously, their financial investment was significant, but the reality is that everybody around the table is an adviser to the company too.”

Investors may eventually collect on their investments by getting royalties on sales for a period of time, by getting bought out by business partners or by forming joint ventures, Helmstetter said. He said it was less likely that they would maintain equity positions in startups.

“We’ve modeled our company to constantly have our portfolio churning — bring them in, do what we need to do and get them out to the marketplace,” Helmstetter said.

The investors expect to begin working with major companies in the agricultural and animal health industries to “look for transformative, disruptive technologies” that will “fill the gaps,” Helmstetter said.

He said the investment firm intends to hire a small staff of business development and technology investment analysts and have some subject-matter experts on contract. They intend to work with “partner companies” to identify technologies needed in the food, animal health and agriculture marketplace and accelerate their time to market.

“Having worked in the research sector my entire career, I know all too well the pain point between proof of concept discoveries and the stage at which industry takes a technology into its pipeline,” Helmstetter said.

Kansas State president Kirk Shulz said the university views TechAccel as a way to “more rapidly commercialize the results of research and development” in food science.

Investments will not be limited to K-State projects, Helmstetter said, but he noted that the university’s expertise was crucial in developing the company. He said the investment firm is open to working with researchers at the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas and other institutions in the animal health corridor that stretches from Columbia, Mo., to Manhattan, Kan.

TechAccel is still working to set up a Web page and make its investment strategy known.

“We’re going to start developing relationships with global industry leaders and finding the gaps, the goals they have,” Helmstetter said. “Then we’ll seek the technologies to match those gaps. … It’s about growing relationships and partnerships.”

He expects the investors’ revolving portfolio to include short- and long-term projects, some of which, he acknowledged, are likely to be halted before reaching the commercial stage.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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