We sat down (virtually) with StarterStudio’s new board member, Stephanie Miller, PhD, MBA, to discuss her background and find out more about what motivated her to accept the invitation to join the Board of Advisors for StarterStudio. She is currently the Executive Director of Technology Transfer and Research Park Initiatives at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. She is as comfortable discussing the kinetochore microtube interactions of her dissertation on cancer progression as she is in discussing her treasure, a 1977 Roadrunner with opera windows in the back and a V-8 “small block” engine under the hood. Spend some time on a video call or in-person with Dr. Miller, and you’ll discover her penchant for the color purple. Not only is her beloved Roadrunner a stunning purple, you might also spy some purple (or green!) in her hair.
StarterStudio: We need to start somewhere, so we’re just going to start with the basics. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Dr. Miller: Well, let me start with my job today here at Embry-Riddle. I manage all aspects of operations at our Research Park and our technology business incubator. That includes making sure our companies have their needs addressed at all times. I call it a concierge type service. So, meeting with each CEO or top-ranking people at each company here and seeing what are the immediate needs for that company? Answering questions like: who do we have at Embry-Riddle that can help them? Who do we have in our local network of partners that can help them? What introductions can we facilitate to meet those current needs? And in that way, we don’t scattershot our efforts, we make sure that it’s a tailored program for each company.
StarterStudio: Gotcha. And when you say Research Park, you’re basically managing everything that’s going on inside of the MicaPlex?
Dr. Miller: Not just the MicaPlex. We have a few other buildings. The Research Park will be about 100 acres when fully built out.
StarterStudio: Is that walking distance from where the MicaPlex is?
Dr. Miller: Yes. And the buildings are all here on the Research Park property? Where the MicaPlex is.
StarterStudio: Okay. This is a trick question. Do you know the mission of StarterStudio?
Dr. Miller: I don’t know if I know the mission verbatim.
StarterStudio: Don’t worry, we don’t know it verbatim either! The highlights really are: 1) that we are a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that works with various partners throughout Central Florida to strengthen the tech startup ecosystem, 2) part and parcel with that is we work to elevate the region in the eyes of investors by educating them about the advantages of investing locally in tech startups, and, 3) we develop and deliver a unique combination of educational programming that is industry specific and startup specific, including our three accelerator programs, one of which is a funded seed-stage accelerator where we mentor and invest in high-potential startups.
If you think of that as a shorter version, maybe you can tell us what resonated with you when you were approached about joining the board.
Dr. Miller: What really resonates with me about StarterStudio’s mission is the theme of economic development. Because that is a major part of the mission of our Research Park and business incubator, as well. So that economic development is accomplished by helping companies, bringing in mentors, running programs that help them develop and grow their businesses. And that’s what we do here as well, in complementary ways. That’s the reason that we partner with StarterStudio to, let’s say, fill in the gaps that we might have, you know, in each individual organization, to come together to be a powerful force to help these companies when we work together.
StarterStudio: Great answer. Thank you. Perhaps you can add a little more about your personal journey and goals of being on the board?
Dr. Miller: That is a good question. When I was first approached about being on the board, my goals were to advance Embry-Riddle’s goals. You know, we made a large investment to the seed fund that’s managed by StarterStudio. And we want to make sure that we’re involved in being good stewards of that money. Helping StarterStudio make smart investments by bringing in companies that can be eligible for it and that StarterStudio can help. This ensures that the mission of Embry-Riddle and StarterStudio together are accomplished.
It’s pretty cool to be kind of Rodney Cruise’s [Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Embry-Riddle] successor on the board. He’s been on it for several years and nominated me to take over and still have Embry-Riddle represented.
StarterStudio: This is a question we just thought of recently to talk to people about. Do you have any areas of interest or of focus that can be leveraged to help our starters, and I’m thinking of things like: do you have some strong background we’re not aware of in energy, or fashion, or IT?
Dr. Miller: Oh, yeah, you hit on it a little bit before we started recording. My PhD is not in engineering or aviation and aerospace, it is in biochemistry and molecular genetics. I started out my career, or I guess my educational career, thinking that I would be doing bench science, researching cures for diseases or treatments for diseases at a pharmaceutical company. I started out on that path because I just intellectually, I loved science, specifically biology. And I kind of kept going, got my Bachelor’s, got my Master’s, got my PhD, because I liked it. I honestly didn’t have a very strong 10-to-20-year career plan. I just kept doing what I liked until I hit the end. Once you get a PhD, you can’t really go too much farther. So, it’s time to get a job. When I got my first job it was in intellectual property. I spent the first seven or eight years of my career working on medical devices and pharmaceuticals, and have a lot of knowledge of that space, some of which is probably a little outdated at this point. But it’s still where my heart kind of lies. I love when I can interact with companies that are still working in those spaces, even though they’re not necessarily companies that might be here at Embry-Riddle.
StarterStudio: Is the attraction for you, is it the lab science part of it? Or is it also the intellectual property? Or both?
Dr. Miller: Yes, a bit of both. I still read papers about the work that I used to do in the lab, how other people are still advancing that science. I still want to know what’s going on in the world of healthcare and new treatments for diseases, and recently with the pandemic, learning about the molecular mechanisms of infection and the treatments for it, the vaccines for it. As terrible as that was, it was also interesting to learn those things. And the intellectual property perspective . . . you know, you can research and come up with all sorts of new things. If you can’t appropriately protect that, you are going to have a very hard time getting it to market where it can have real world impact.
StarterStudio: This is not in in the questions we typically ask people, but we’re curious to know whether you miss the lab? You’ve been a teaching professional, too, do you miss teaching?
Dr. Miller: I don’t miss the parts of the lab where you’re kind of in the slog of doing an experiment and trying to get results that are true and that matter. One of the things I did not enjoy about graduate school, about getting my PhD, is sometimes designing the right experiment to get to the answer to the question that you’re asking, can take months, once you have that design down, you then have to collect the results, analyze the results, put them together, and a paper that can take many, many months more. So, it’s a long process, it’s something you have to be really dedicated to. And I enjoyed the analysis of the results, the writing of the paper, the more intellectual parts of it, rather than the physical pipetting things into different tubes, looking at them under the microscope, figuring out what went wrong. I miss that aspect of it for sure.
StarterStudio: And how about teaching?
Dr. Miller: Off the record, I do not miss teaching, I don’t do it anymore. I figured out it was not for me. I like teaching in a one -on-one setting. Like here in my current job. I realized that teaching in a classroom setting with say 20 students was not where my talent lies.
StarterStudio: Okay, now we have a curveball. You ready?
Dr. Miller: Yep.
StarterStudio: What is one of your superpowers? And how will you apply it toward StarterStudio’s success?
Dr. Miller: I would say one of my superpowers is being a connector. I took a class where I realized this when I was an MBA student at Embry-Riddle. At the end of the class, we had learned about different leadership styles, management styles, things like that. And at the end of the class, we had to write a one-page essay on where we thought our talents lie, which what type of leader we are, what types of skills we have, that we bring to the table. And after going through the class, I realized at the end, it was being a connector and recognizing that I know person A and person B, and they need to meet each other. And it might not be something obvious to those parties. But I am able to see some way that coming together would be beneficial for both of them.
StarterStudio: Fantastic. That is a superpower. Love that answer. Thank you very much. Okay this is one of those fun ones: if StarterStudio was to be on the cover of a business magazine or business newspaper, one of your favorites, in five years, what would you like that story to be about?
Dr. Miller: Hmm. I think that story would definitely have to be about impact. StarterStudio has already had tremendous impact in Central Florida, in the ecosystem we have here. Wasn’t Stax [formerly Fattmerchant] the first “unicorn” that came out of StarterStudio? Right?
StarterStudio: Correct. Correct. It’s one of like seven in the entire state of Florida.
Dr. Miller: Yeah, I want the story to say StarterStudio is the organization to go to in Florida, to learn to develop and grow your business so that there are more stories like that to be shared.
StarterStudio: Yes, yes. Perfect. That’s all we have for you today. Thank you so much. And welcome to the board.