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Sharing the rewards of a culture of innovation

ASU Thunderbird Investor Network connects ASU investors with the university’s entrepreneurs

student speaking in microphone

Pat Pataranutaporn presents the pitch for his group, Humanity X, as part of the ASU Spark Tank startup pitch event for the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, Feb. 4, 2016, at the Galvin Playhouse. The group developed software to scan social media for key words that flags people who may be planning suicide. All Walks won the $20,000 prize and mentorship, with 33 Buckets and Humanity X earning $10,000 seed money as runners up. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

March 21, 2018

Magical things can happen when innovative minds connect with forward-thinking investors.

So Arizona State University is combining the strength of its research commitment and entrepreneurial spirit with the Thunderbird School of Global Management's Angel Network of investors to create unique opportunities for the ASU family. As part of ASU’s Founders Day observance for 2018, President Michael Crow announced the creation of the ASU Thunderbird Investor Network (ATIN). ATIN will give ASU supporters unique access to investment opportunities that arise from ASU’s status as the most innovative university in the nation.

The ASU charter recognizes the university's importance as a comprehensive public research university, calling upon it to advance research and discovery of value to the community. Simultaneously, the university undertakes a fundamental responsibility for the overall health of the communities it serves. That health includes economic welfare, and those communities encompass not only the geography of metropolitan Phoenix and the state of Arizona, but also the communities of ASU-affiliated citizens wherever they live, and of startup businesses that begin as part of ASU’s culture of innovation.

Since 2000, Arizona State University’s investment in research has grown from just over $100 million to $550 million, making ASU one of the fastest-growing research enterprises in the U.S. During that same period, more than 120 startup companies based on ASU discoveries have attracted more than $700 million in private investment capital. And many hundreds of startups have been launched by ASU alumni.

Thunderbird School of Global Management, a unit of the ASU Knowledge Enterprise since 2015, also has a long history of engaging in innovation and entrepreneurship. For more than 70 years, it has been a training ground for leaders in international business. And its Thunderbird Angel Network of accredited investors has become an ever-more valuable resource for early-stage companies with the potential to grow rapidly.

“As a top-tier research university, ASU provides a tremendous amount of support for our students to gain the experience in entrepreneurship and innovation they need to become leaders in industry," said Jeff Mindlin, vice president of investments for the ASU Foundation. "Similarly, Skysong Innovations provides ASU faculty with intellectual property management and technology transfer, allowing ASU’s ecosystem of discovery to have broad societal impact. However, we’ve never had an organized pathway to support ventures by alumni after they’ve left the university.”

Mindlin said the ASU Thunderbird Investor Network will invite ASU-affiliated investors (alumni, faculty, staff, students, parents) to become part of that ecosystem of discovery, connecting them with the university’s most promising entrepreneurs and visionary ideas as they enter the marketplace.

“Our foundation operates on a model of finding out what our alumni and advocates are passionate about, and connecting them with an ASU college, center, or initiative that can help them explore that passion,” Mindlin said. “But we recognize that these members of the ASU community, and many other people affiliated with the university in some way, have personal financial goals in addition to philanthropy. The ASU Thunderbird Investor Network is a nexus where these potential investors can interface with investment opportunities born out of university research and innovation, to the benefit of both.”

Building the network

To maintain credibility and trust within the network, investors must be accredited and have an affiliation with ASU or Thunderbird. They may be donors, alumni or their parents and grandparents, and faculty or staff. Similarly, a startup applying to be considered for funding must have a direct ASU connection: a founder, board member or C-level executive who is an ASU or Thunderbird alumnus or alumna. Based on this shared connection, the ATIN provides a mechanism for introducing these ASU-affiliated ventures to network members.

Establishing trust

The ASU Thunderbird Investor Network relies on a robust infrastructure of qualified individuals to support its mission of fostering innovation in the ASU community.

• Operating Team — Dedicated, expert personnel and resources are in place to manage the network. The team assists with company research as well as with coordination between investors and companies.

• Advisory Board — Board members are representatives of the Thunderbird School of Global Management and Thunderbird Angel Network, the ASU Alumni Association, ASU Entrepreneurship + Innovation, SkySong Innovations, and ASU Enterprise Partners. The board provides high-level expert strategy, governance, and mentorship.

• Student Teams — Using the latest in academic research and techniques, graduate students from ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business and Thunderbird assist the Operating Team in evaluating companies. The students benefit from real-world experience in the venture capital market, while providing potential investors with state-of-the-art vetting services and unique, fresh insights.

Confidence through connection

The strength of the network is the connections it creates between the best-qualified advisors and managers and the most up-to-date investment research, amplified by the national and international footprint of ASU and Thunderbird.

• The process begins when a prospective company submits a proposal for consideration.

• The ATIN Operating Team will review the proposal to ensure it meets applicable investment criteria and weigh its viability against the appetite for investment.

• A student team, supervised by university faculty and working under the direction of the Operating Team, carries out intensive research on the prospective company.

• The Operating Team uses this analysis to assemble an investment report which is then distributed to the ATIN.

• The company is invited to present to the ATIN. Network members may attend in person or live via webex, or may watch a recording of the presentation at their convenience.

• Members will have the ability to ask for additional information before deciding for themselves whether to invest directly in the prospective company.

• If a prescribed number of members invest and/or capital is raised, a sidecar fund from the ASU Foundation will co-invest with members to provide additional funding to the company. 

ASU’s mission statement lays the foundation for the ATIN.

“Our university has a mandate to advance research and discovery of public value,” said Rick Shangraw, CEO of ASU Enterprise Partners. “ASU would not be where it is, at the forefront of America’s research universities, without the support of our community of alumni, donors, and friends.

“The most exciting aspect of the ASU Thunderbird Investor Network is its ability to bring multiple stakeholders together — researchers, alumni, investors, the foundation and Enterprise Partners — to advance ideas that were incubated by the university’s energy and encouragement,” Shangraw said. “We see those ideas taking shape every day at ASU, and we watch as their creators prepare to become leaders in their fields. As these inventors and innovators will tell you, their time in ASU’s ecosystem of discovery thoroughly prepared them for success outside the university. And our own experience with the Startup Mill offered by our division of Entrepreneurship and Innovation demonstrates how ASU matches accomplished entrepreneurs with promising discoveries to help them advance in the marketplace. We’re delighted to now be able to make the benefits of their entrepreneurship available to the ASU community through the ASU Thunderbird Investor Network.”

Recommendations of candidate firms and the sharing of their information via the ATIN Investment Platform, and investment in them via the sidecar fund, do not imply a fiduciary responsibility or relationship for the ASU Foundation, the ATIN Operating Team, or Advisory Board.

For information on the ASU Thunderbird Investor Network, now called InvestU, visit

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