The University of Chicago News Office
August 20, 1995 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
(773) 702-8366

Chemistry grad student ventures off traditional path

When she received her Ph.D. earlier this summer, University of Chicago chemistry graduate student Karen Kerr decided not to follow the traditional path of many of her classmates–a postdoctoral position and then an academic appointment. Instead, she is training to become a venture capitalist.

Kerr, whose Ph.D. studies were in physical chemistry, won a two-year fellowship that enables her to become an apprentice in venture capital at a prestigious New York firm, Patricof & Co. Ventures Inc. She is one of 16 fellows–all of whom hold advanced degrees in science, engineering or business–in the charter class of Kauffman Fellows, sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Inc. at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Each first-year fellow receives an award of $80,000; a similar award will be granted in the second year.

The program is designed to give the Kauffman Fellows the opportunity to study venture capital–the financing of potentially high-growth companies when more conventional financing is not available due to degree of risk or lack of collateral–in a real-world classroom. Fellows study with mentors in the venture funds to understand the process of finding and investing in growth companies. They will also study companies in which venture funds have been invested, meet periodically with other fellows and complete an applied research project.

While conducting high-resolution spectroscopic studies on solid hydrogen with her adviser, Takeshi Oka, the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry at Chicago, Kerr also worked as a scientific consultant for ARCH, the development corporation set up to commercialize technologies developed at Argonne National Laboratory and at Chicago.

“My job was to explain some of the scientific underpinnings of the technologies that people were commercializing and to do market analysis,” Kerr said. “This meant looking at what the competing technologies are, figuring out who is going to use a new product and examining why a particular product is better than what is already out there. In the venture business, as in any business, information is crucial.”

Kerr said the tools and methods she used in physical chemistry gave her knowledge and skills that enabled her to understand the technologies that she was helping to commercialize. “The core concepts that are involved are not that different from the science that I’ve been looking at, just a different application,” she said.

Before coming to Chicago in 1989, Kerr received her B.S. in chemistry from Bryn Mawr. Her previous awards have included a fellowship from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. She has also been a Danforth fellow and a National Science Foundation minority predoctoral fellow.

The Kauffman Fellows program is named in honor of Ewing Marion Kauffman, a successful entrepreneur and founder of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Inc., who throughout his lifetime shared his knowledge with other entrepreneurs.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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