Universities get creative with technology commercialization
From commercialization partnerships to startup incubators and new sources of funding, universities seem to be getting creative in how they’re breathing innovative thinking into their technology commercialization efforts.
“I think there’s renewed interest in tech transfer in that universities are seeing themselves going beyond just generating knowledge and realizing they need to generate solutions to problems,” said Don Rose, director of the University of North Carolina’s Carolina KickStart program.
And leaders at the federal level are following suit by coming up with new ways to give additional resources to universities to boost their technology commercialization. This spring, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute put out a request for applications for the National Institutes of Health’s new Centers for Accelerated Innovations grants, which will develop centers across the country that facilitate the translation of promising early-stage technologies into products for the life sciences markets.
The grant aims to help researchers overcome barriers to commercialization including the funding gap between basic research discoveries and the scientific validation studies required for early-stage technology development, and a lack of knowledge by academic researchers about the commercialization process.
“You need to do more work to show proof of concept or demonstrate validation, and a lot of that work is best done at the university,” Rose said. “But many times, faculty members aren’t trained to know what those studies should be. This grant is an effort to de-risk technology while in a university setting, but to apply business practices and commercial insights into those studies.”
That means working with external parties to evaluate the technologies and make them more attractive from a licensing perspective, Rose said. Funding could help with feasibility or proof-of-concept studies, access to business, regulatory, legal and project management expertise, and training in entrepreneurial topics.
That’s the same idea behind the America Innovates Act (H.B. 4720 and S.B. 2369), which was introduced in Congress this spring and has been assigned to committees. Under the bill, the U.S. would establish an independent agency called the American Innovation Bank that would dole out grants and loans to universities, investigators and companies to aid in the commercialization of science and engineering discoveries.
With the funding stream, universities or companies could hire staff, test their technologies, seek business, regulatory or patent guidance, or build incubators or other facilities that would help make discoveries more appealing to investors, the bill proposes. It would also help provide business, IP protection, commercialization and product development training for graduate students in the sciences.
“In biosciences, we train tens of thousands of Ph.D. biologists, but only 14 percent of them go into university jobs and only about 8 percent get tenured,” said Steve Casper, a professor of management at the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences. “That means the rest go into the economy — most of them are just doing research and have no idea how different it is in academic labs versus doing it for commercialization.”
But here’s the bad news: Govtrack.us gives the bill only a 2 percent chance of being enacted. The controversy isn’t so much about designating money for technology transfer, Casper said, but rather that it proposes creating a new agency to take money from existing budgets and favors awarding grants to institutions already receiving significant funding from the NIH or National Science Foundation rather than those that are struggling for funding.
Even if the bill doesn’t pass, its proposal is a sign that legislators are recognizing the need for resources to help bridge the gap between academia and industry for continued innovation. Casper suggested that Congress renewing the SBIR program at the end of last year may have been a turning point in that effort.
“People have realized that it’s competitive, it’s very meritocratic and it really does bridge the valley of death,” he said. “It is true that a lot of companies get a few hundred thousand dollars and can get their technology to a point where it’s more fundable. I think perhaps we’re over the bump on that because there was no interest in renewing SBIR for quite a while.”