The Interview Issue: Pavita Howe, director, Rutgers Entrepreneurs

Bringing together a university community … with a surprise twist at the end

Like anyone who has ever thrown a party, Pavita Howe had that inner worry.

She knew the first-ever Rutgers Entrepreneurs networking event would be a great chance to bring together entrepreneurs, investors, academics, government officials and anyone else connected to either Rutgers University or the startup world — affording them a chance to make new friends in an ecosystem that is all about connections.

Howe just didn’t know if anyone would actually come to Winants Hall, the historic educational building located on the Queens Campus, for the two-hour mixer on that Nov. 16 night.

As the event went on, Howe realized she had another concern: Would anyone ever leave?

“We had 75 people there and almost all of them were still there an hour after it was over — chatting, networking, making connections,” she said.

“The event planners who do a lot of events at Rutgers came up to me and said: ‘This is amazing. People want to be here. They are so excited about this. You can feel their energy in the room.’”

As the director of Rutgers Entrepreneurial Partnerships — an initiative created in partnership between the Rutgers Office for Research and the Rutgers University Foundation — Howe was thrilled.

“It was really fun and exciting to see,” she said.

The hope is that it will be a milestone moment for a Rutgers entrepreneurial community that is large, but not as organized as one would think. The university, for all its various schools and campuses, does not have an entrepreneurial center — a stunning statement for any higher education institution, but even more so for the flagship university in a state that lays claim to many of the greatest inventors in history.

Howe, who has been involved with startups for nearly all of her impressive three-decade career, was brought in to help change that. Twice.

In 2016, she launched and managed the TechAdvance Fund, which bridges the gap between basic science, technology, engineering and mathematics research and commercialization of new products and services developed at Rutgers. In its first-three years, TechAdvance provided early-stage funding ($3.8 million) for approximately 50 projects, helping to increase the probability of commercialization and licensing of technologies developed at Rutgers in health care, life science, medical devices, engineering, materials science, information technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, Software-as-a-Service, agriculture, clean tech, environment and sustainability.

After a short stint as the principal of a business consulting firm that worked with startups, she returned to Rutgers in the fall of 2019 to launch and lead the entrepreneurial partnerships initiative — which showed its value during the pandemic.

Howe and her team worked on a special assignment to support the Rutgers RUCDR Infinite Biologics team, which developed the first COVID-19 saliva test to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA.

The possibilities for greatness clearly are there.

“This essentially was created to bring visibility to Rutgers entrepreneurs — that includes students, faculty, alumni, as well as academic programs — and to help them make connections into the university for resources and collaboration, and also make connections into the broader Rutgers and New Jersey entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she said.

We were curious to hear more — about Howe (there’s a surprise ending) and about Rutgers’ efforts to increase the visibility and success of its entrepreneurs. That’s why we invited Howe to take part in our annual Interview Issue.

Here’s more of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with TechAdvance. Give us more details on how that helped entrepreneurs at Rutgers.

Pavita Howe: That was a fund that was created to provide gap funding to Rutgers researchers who are looking to commercialize their technologies that they’ve developed in the labs and need to move the project forward to the point where an investor or a company might be interested in stepping in and helping them to commercialize.

We were providing grants of up to $100,000 — no strings attached. So, it wasn’t an investment. And we weren’t even working with companies. In most cases, it was pre-company — it was a technology that they wanted to advance to the point where they could try and get funding or partnership to help personalize it.

ROI: That sounds like a perfect lead in to launching Rutgers Entrepreneurs. Give us more on its goals?

PH: Rutgers has more than half a million living alumni — and many of them are entrepreneurs. Sometimes, they reach out to us looking for help from their alma mater. And we reach out proactively to people that we hear about when we see that they’ve received funding, they’ve launched a new company, they’re taking over as CEO of a startup or they’re announcing an IPO. There are so many ways we can find connections and then help make connections.

The goal is to help Rutgers entrepreneurs expand their Rutgers network, but also to bring visibility to Rutgers alums who are doing exciting things and making an impact in the world.

ROI: Talk more about the kickoff networking event.

PH: We had faculty entrepreneurs, students who are working on startups, people from the Rutgers community that supports faculty programs and startup teams.

Kathleen Coviello from the (Economic Development Authority) spoke about how her organization can help and partners with entrepreneurs. Judith Sheft from (the Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology) talked about their voucher program, which has been really helpful to startups and entrepreneurs because they can apply for funding from the CSIT, which they are given to use toward services or research at any university in New Jersey.

And, of course, we had some great entrepreneurs, including Juan Salinas, who founded P-nuff Crunch, which is a healthy plant-based snack food. He’s a triple alum, a first-generation student, an immigrant from Honduras, who got his Ph.D. and all three degrees from Rutgers. He went to work at a food company and then decided to start his own healthy snack business. He went on “Shark Tank” and got ($400,000) funding from Mark Cuban. He spoke and was very inspiring.

The plan is to bring groups like these together on a regular basis and give them opportunities to showcase their companies and to interact with the state agencies and investors and people who can help them to build and grow their businesses and be successful.

ROI: Entrepreneurial organizers often have very specific niches, whether it’s the size of the company, where it is on its growth path or simply the sector that it is in. What is the target for Rutgers Entrepreneurs?

PH: We are all-inclusive. We have tech, fintech, life science, pharma, diagnostics, food, climate, sustainability — anything you can think of. And people come at all different stages. Some of them are still early stage, developing technologies. Some are alumni who are further along — they’ve received a round or more of funding, they’ve developing their business plan, their products, their strategies and they just to connect or collaborate on research. Some people are looking for mentoring and resources or are looking to connect to investors, some want to connect with experts in certain areas. And some are looking for resources that they may not know about. We can connect them to the EDA, the CSIT or other agencies.

And then, we have some people who are just really interested in being involved with the university, maybe speaking to students, maybe looking for interns, or full-time employees, when students graduate. Or they might be looking to work with students to do a project for them, which is a popular option, too. We have some programs involving experiential learning, where a team of students will work on a project for a company — startups usually don’t have a lot of resources — and they get to do something exciting.

Rutgers Entrepreneurs is here to help, whether it’s core services from Rutgers or making connections in the broader New Jersey ecosystem.

ROI: Have to ask, does the program only help Rutgers students and alums?

PH: We do hear from startups that are not Rutgers affiliated. They just say, ‘We’re in New Jersey and Rutgers is the state university, can you help?’ If we have resources that can help them, we’re happy to do so. We go through the same process for anybody, trying to find ways to help them navigate Rutgers, because it is such a big, dispersed university with so many different areas of activity and expertise.

ROI: We can hear the passion in your voice. Tell us more about your background and you became so connected to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

PH: I started out my career working at a startup, Forte Advanced Management Software, which was acquired by Genesys. This was in the early days of people doing business online (the ’90s) and we created a software product that was kind of a precursor to CRM software, where you use the platform to manage all the customer interactions online.

I guess I caught the startup bug then. I loved being in a place where we were figuring things out, building from the ground up, understanding customer needs and wants and being creative throughout the process. I have a marketing background, too, so it was great to learn how to get out there and show how you not only have a quality product, but that you are unique. That’s really important to me. Every project I take on, whether it’s building a new product or launching a new initiative, I want it to have a unique brand that engages people and reflects quality.

For me, every situation is different. When I talk to someone new, I try and understand what kind of business they’re in, what problem they’re solving, who might be able to help them what stage they’re at — and then I think about what connections I can make for them to get started.

Often people ask me if they can do check-ins regularly. I used to work as a consultant to many startups, so I often end up doing some coaching, too.

ROI: All of this leads to the big surprise ending. Like any good entrepreneur, you are moving on to your next opportunity — as the vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship at BioNJ. Tell us about that.

PH: I will be focused on expanding BioNJ’s support of New Jersey’s life sciences entrepreneurial community. This will include bringing visibility to life science startups and entrepreneurs in New Jersey and connecting them to valuable resources across the ecosystem.

ROI: Sounds a lot like what you have been doing at Rutgers — and doing for much of your career.

PH: Yes, I’m still going to be supporting entrepreneurs, so I’m very excited about it. I think it’s something that I can help build and grow quite a bit. Almost every job I’ve ever had has involved launching something new. That’s what I love to do.

ROI: You sound just like the entrepreneurs you aim to serve.

Five fun questions

What is the most notable job you had in high school?

I worked full-time in housekeeping in a hospital for three summers in a row. That is not an easy job; it’s hard work and it’s exhausting. It taught me that I wanted to go to college and get job where I wouldn’t have to be on my feet for eight hours straight every day.

More than that, it taught me about the perseverance of others. I saw people there who either didn’t have access to education or were immigrants from other places. I saw how hard they worked so that their children and families could have a better life after them — and their kids were doing amazing things.

I think the most important lesson it taught me was that you should respect everyone, regardless of their title or position. People work very hard to make a better life for their families, and their children go on to be doctors and lawyers and businesspeople and successful people in the community. And that’s all because of their hard work.

What skill do you use on your kids that you learned at work — or use at work that you learn from being a parent?

The technique that I have really tried to impart on my kids is networking. I’m trying to teach them that networking can lead to all kinds of opportunities, to jobs, to finding friends with common interests. When it’s a tough market, having those connections can make all the difference.

What person, dead or alive, real or created, famous or infamous, would you want to have dinner with?

I want to dine with Christian Louboutin, the designer who makes the shoes with the red heels. Yes, I’ve always loved fashion — I used to make clothes when I was growing up. But, I want to meet him as an entrepreneur. A have a fashion tech idea that I think could improve the health and wellness for women, especially professional women, everywhere. So, in my fantasy world, I would love to pitch this idea while talking with someone about the fashion industry that I love.

If you could be New Jersey business czar for the day, what would you do to help the state?

New Jersey is doing a lot already to attract businesses, making it more business-friendly to entrepreneurs and startups. We brag already about having the talent and the location, the history of innovation and we’re offering many incentives, so that’s all good.

I would make sure we’re looking at other ecosystems for more ideas, too. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about Miami, and the incentives they are using to attract businesses. Some of the entrepreneurs that I’ve worked with in the last year have moved from New York or New Jersey to Miami, because of those incentives. You can say it’s the beaches and the climate and the fun city. But we have that here.

So, let’s figure out what it is that’s tying it together and really look to see if we can do something similar.

What’s your favorite food? It can be a meal or a snack — or even a restaurant.

For me, it’s Friday night pizza, which, in our house, is homemade, from scratch. I grew up with a mom who worked full time, but every Friday night, she would come home, make pizza dough and make pizza. That was our family night. It soon became our extended family night. All our friends knew that Friday night was pizza night at our house and people would show up even uninvited to join us because they love that fun family night.