At Dartmouth, a Point Man for Entrepreneurs Is Cut Out
Gregg Fairbrothers, the founding chairman of the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center, is flanked by Trip Davis, left, the executive director of Dartmouth's Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer, and Jamie Coughlin, right, the director of Dartmouth's New Venture Incubator Programs as they listen to officials of FreshAir Sensor, Inc. talk about their company during New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan's visit to the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center in Lebanon, N.H. on July 16, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)
Hanover — The man who has been closely associated with Dartmouth College’s cultivation of business innovation for the past decade won’t be part of the effort moving forward.
Gregg Fairbrothers, who started the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network in 2001 and has taught courses on entrepreneurship at the Tuck School of Business since 2004, has been out of a job since the end of June.
In April, Fairbrothers was notified that his position at DEN was terminated. The next day, he was told by Tuck that his contract as an adjunct professor would not be renewed.
The college parted ways with Fairbrothers one year after a major reorganization — including the creation of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer — in the way the college attempts to capitalize on the ideas and innovations that result from research and scholarship on campus.
While some have chalked up this summer’s shakeup to a turf war that Fairbrothers lost, other have expressed concern about what his departure means for business education, and the business of education, at Dartmouth. Through a petition drive and letter-writing campaign, more than 1,200 current and former students protested the decision to end Fairbrothers’ tenure.
“When I go and talk to prospective students about the entrepreneurial program at Tuck, with Gregg at the center of the community, I didn’t have any problem recommending the school as a wonderful place,” said Mac Doughterty, a Tuck graduate and CEO of Boston-based Cognitive Electronics. “Now, I’m not as enthusiastic. I would really hope that Dartmouth and Tuck would understand that universities are a culture of great teams.”
In a written response to Fairbrothers supporters, interim Provost Martin N. Wybourne reiterated the college’s commitment to entrepreneurship on campus and through its alumni network.
“Gregg has contributed to a culture of entrepreneurship at Dartmouth for which we are grateful and on which the (Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer) will expand,” Wybourne said.
Mentor to Entrepreneurs
Fairbrothers, 59, is credited with nurturing as many as 400 fledgling companies in his time on campus and also founded the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center, the Upper Valley’s largest business incubator.
A 1976 Dartmouth graduate, he returned to the Upper Valley in 1999 after retiring from a lucrative run in the oil and gas business. He was president of Samson Resources, a private, domestic exploration and production company headquartered in Tulsa, Okla., and the founder of Samson International, of which he was president for 20 years. The holding company, which had interests in Canada, Russia and Venezuela, was sold for $1.2 billion in 2006.
In 2001, he set up DEN as a department of the college under the Office of the Provost. He served as its founding director until last month.
DEN helps entrepreneurs with Dartmouth ties develop ideas into businesses or nonprofit organizations, according to its web site. In addition to mentoring students and faculty in the Upper Valley, DEN operates in 11 cities across the country to foster relationships among members and to assist them with starting businesses.
Fairbrothers used his course curriculum as the foundation for a 2011 book, From Idea to Success, and has written a number of articles on entrepreneurship. He serves on numerous boards for companies and nonprofit organizations.
“There was nothing like DEN here at Dartmouth before 2002, and now he has a network around the country. People like to follow him. He’s very smart and a valuable asset for Dartmouth. I hold Dartmouth in great affection, but I believe the college has wasted a valuable resource,” said Mike Gonnerman, a 1965 Dartmouth grad, who has worked as a financial adviser to more than 100 high tech companies.
He’s also a faithful supporter of the college and gave some of the initial financial backing for DEN.
“He was sitting alone in this little office, and I gave him a modest check,” Gonnerman said. “Gregg is DEN. Without him, there wouldn’t be any DEN.”
In 2006, Fairbrothers also launched the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center, an incubator that is managed by the college but is owned by the Grafton County Economic Development Council and the North Country Council, an economic development district. He remains on the DRTC’s board.
Fairbrothers has declined to publicly discuss why his DEN position was eliminated nor why his contract to teach at Tuck was not renewed, but he has made clear that agrees with those who attribute his departure from Dartmouth to academic politics rather than any specific personnel issue.
Meanwhile the campaign to reinstate Fairbrothers and speculation about the reasons for his termination have not abated. On a website called keepgregg.com, some Fairbrothers supporters have expressed concern about what his departure portends for entrepreneurship and innovation at Dartmouth.
“The College (entrepreneurship) is … changing direction to make Dartmouth more ‘Venture Capital friendly,’ ” wrote Fairbrothers’ advocates on the website. “Certainly starting successful businesses is important, but as an academic institution we need to focus also on helping people be successful, whether or not they start companies.
“That is what the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN) has been doing for the past decade: helping students and alumni build entrepreneurial skills — which are valuable everywhere.
“We believe these two approaches must coexist at Dartmouth. ... For the future of Dartmouth, we need to preserve and grow the DEN as we know it.”
Dartmouth officials say they will not comment on personnel matters, but they do insist that the school’s entrepreneurial program is alive, well and stronger than ever.
“I need to commend Gregg Fairbrothers for what he did for Dartmouth, and so much for so many students for so many years,” President Phil Hanlon said during an editorial board meeting with the Valley News last month. “He’s a passionate believer in entrepreneurial endeavors, and he instilled that in students.”
Hanlon said he was not involved in the decision to let Fairbrothers go.
“The only thing that I’ve done is elevate the priority of entrepreneurialism on campus,” he said. “I’m very interested in these kinds of ideas created at Dartmouth and how they can benefit the economic development of the Upper Valley.”
In April 2013, prior to Hanlon’s arrival, when the new Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer was established, the college moved DEN and the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center under its auspices from the Provost’s Office.
The man at the helm of the OETT, as its known on campus, is Tillman Gerngross, a professor at the Thayer School of Engineering and associate provost who has his own lucrative track record in the world of entrepreneurship.
Gerngross was co-founder of GlycoFi, which was sold to Merck and Co. in 2006 for $400 million. He also is the co-founder and CEO of Adimab, which is based in Lebanon along with his other companies, Arsanis and Avitide. He is a venture partner in SV Life Sciences, a venture capital group based in San Francisco, headed by Michael Ross, who is a Dartmouth graduate.
Trip Davis, executive director at the Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer, has taken over Fairbrothers’ role at the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network.
In an interview earlier this month, Gerngross praised the work Fairbrothers did while also defending the change in leadership.
“Trip (Davis) manages the day-to-day activities of OETT, and has a lot of entrepreneurial knowledge and management experience. Gregg deserves every credit for having done a lot for Dartmouth and its students, but when I look at what we need to be doing now, I think DEN is better off under Trip’s leadership,” Gerngross said.
“But I had nothing to do with his teaching position. Tuck made its own decision. They were interested in our thoughts, and we explained them, but we were not involved in the decision. Gregg was part of a large faculty at Tuck involved with entrepreneurship.”
Paul Danos, the dean at Tuck, who has himself announced his departure in 2015, said that entrepreneurship will continue to thrive at the business school after Fairbrothers’ departure. About 35 percent of Tuck students go on to run their own businesses, he said.
“Entrepreneurship has a long history at Tuck,” Danos said. “… We have a large number of our faculty members involved in the program and advising students who want to start their own businesses. One person can’t make or break the program.”
In his letter to Fairbrothers’ supporters, Wybourne cited the establishment of the Innovation Center and New Venture incubator, which is expected to open on campus in the fall. The center is designed to provide flexible work space and an environment where all students have access to the resources, connections, experiences and capital to start businesses.
“Led by successful biotech entrepreneur and Associate Provost Tillman Gerngross, the (OETT) has ambitious plans to make Dartmouth a more effective facilitator of innovation and entrepreneurship, empowering community members to more easily develop and share their best ideas with the world,” Wybourne wrote.
Meanwhile, Gerngross plans to make some changes that he believes will enhance Dartmouth’s role in promoting innovation. Colleges, he said, often can be stumbling blocks for innovators, and that’s something that he is already attempting to address at Dartmouth.
“What we very much want to do is support the transfer of intellectual property and the transition from an idea into a business that will create jobs in the Upper Valley. Right now, Dartmouth and other universities are working against that happening smoothly,” he said, noting that he had to go outside of Dartmouth to set up GlycoFi and Adimab.
The policy plan for intellectual assets at Dartmouth is now under review, and the changes will move the university more into the role of a facilitator, Gerngross said.
Under the current system, faculty members have an obligation to disclose anything that could be considered an invention, and the Office of Technology Transfer decides whether the idea is commercially viable enough to pursue a patent. The cost of securing the patent then falls to the inventor. The process is taxing and time consuming, Gerngross said. Bureaucracy and duplication of efforts cause delays, he said, and many innovators do not have the resources to sustain the process.
“The tech transfer office needs to get out of the way and start thinking about how the university can help start a company and attract money that will build jobs in the Upper Valley. When we do this at Dartmouth, we will be different than other universities, and it will attract more innovators to come here,” he said this month.
“I’m not interested in rebranding what we already do,” Gerngross said during an interview last year with Xconomy, an online magazine that covers business, life sciences and technology. “I really care about outcome. I really want to change things. I don’t mind being patient and going through the process.”
Whether the fallout from the Fairbrothers’ dismissal will continue to dog college administrators or affect alumnus support is unclear.
Tuck announced last week that the school had raised $6.5 million from 70.9 percent of its graduates. It’s the fourth year in a row that more than 70 percent of graduates have participated, a percentage that the Tuck says is more than double the average giving rate of other business schools.
One college official, who declined to be identified, challenged the suggestion that there was anything particularly unusual or unfair about Fairbrothers’ departure. Fairbrothers had a new boss who didn’t want him on the team, and he was an adjunct professor with a contract that wasn’t renewed. This kind of thing happens at Dartmouth, and in business, all the time, the official said.
But some of Fairbrothers’ supporters fear that Tuck and the teaching of entrepreneurship at Dartmouth will be seriously diminished.
“I met Gregg via his entrepreneurship course, and became a DEN member that way. It awestruck me how humble and accessible he was given his wild success as an entrepreneur. He started his oil exploration firm, which he sold for a large profit, and then moved back to Dartmouth,” said Gabriel Gaidos, a former Dartmouth postdoctoral fellow. “If you’re late for his entrepreneurship class, you may have to sit on the floor because the place is jam-packed. Dartmouth College should treat him like the star professor that he is.”
He said that he was pessimistic that the either college or DEN would reverse course.
“I don’t think the Dartmouth leadership will change their decision, in spite of the community’s support for Gregg. DEN will practically fall apart, because people will not follow the new illegitimate leaders. Alternatively, DEN might officially separate from Dartmouth and become an independent organization,” Gaidos said. “As for entrepreneurial ideas I have many. ... Currently, I am pursuing a biotech idea, which was supposed to be developed here at DRTC. Since Gregg won’t be able to provide support anymore, I am currently relocating to the Boston area where lots of biotech incubators are available.”
In one letter of support to Hanlon, Ling Yan Richard, a Dartmouth graduate and investment banker with Goldman Sachs in New York, said that at the least, Fairbrothers should be honored by the college for his contribution, rather than “handed an ungraceful exit.”
“When you visited Goldman, you asked me for advice for boosting the college’s reputation overseas,” she wrote. “I think positioning the school to treasure a beloved faculty member is a basic first step.”
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.