Creating opportunities for tech transfer
This article is the first in a series that will highlight the progress and challenges of one of our seven Strategic Plan Leadership Teams, each charged with developing action plans for key areas of the strategic plan.
Government and industry are increasingly tapping into the knowledge of university faculty to identify areas of research that have potential for commercial implementation. The College of Technology has recognized this growing trend by giving it priority in its 2009-2014 Strategic Plan.
The Technology Transfer, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship team, led by Matt McKillip, Lonnie Bentley and Eric Dietz, has been analyzing the developments in this area and seeking ways to efficiently and effectively deliver faculty research and intellectual property to the marketplace.
The team has been looking at current trends in higher education commercialization, including the increase of industry and government funding for startup business and identifying and visiting some of the universities that are leading in this area. They have also been active in developing internal partnerships with the Office of Technology Commercialization and the Purdue Research Foundation to streamline the process of applying for patents, negotiating rights and licensing, and finding university support in business development.
Why commercialization and why now? There is a national trend for universities to become business incubators. More than 400 university startups (new companies) are created nationally each year based on federally funded research. At Purdue, 48 new businesses have started in the past five years, generating more than $4 million in licenses and royalties for the university. Four of these startups have come from the College of Technology, including Bentley’s own Broadband Antenna Tracking System (BATS), which he launched with Tony Smith and Mike Kane.
The college is ideally situated to take the lead in this area. Continued growth in faculty research yields growth in intellectual property and commercialization potential. And with a focus on applied research, the college is optimally geared to generate discoveries with near-term market potential.
But with the opportunity comes challenges. Among other things, the college needs to develop a culture of entrepreneurship, internal structures/silos need to be aligned or removed, mentoring is needed for faculty and grad students, the process must be simplified and streamlined, and promotion and tenure needs to recognize commercialization.
We talked with Bentley and McKillip to learn more about what they found during their team’s discovery process over the past year and the opportunities they see for college faculty interested in marketing their intellectual property.
What is technology transfer?
Lonnie Bentley: To me, it’s getting new technologies out into the marketplace. This can include ideas or other discoveries, not necessarily a product. The opportunity is significant for our college. The nature of our research results often in discoveries that can lead to more rapid transfer.
Matt McKillip: Technology transfer is delivery. Our college should own that due to our applied research; it’s more immediately marketable. Other discoveries, such as in science, take years for the delivery to take place. On the government side, people are beginning to ask for quicker return on investments. In terms of economic development, they want us to deliver things quicker and with more impact. On the market side, a lot of companies are using universities to do their basic and applied research.
LB: There is a lot of cost-cutting in industry. They are looking at third-parties for research and development. They want a peak at what we are doing to see what applies to their industry.
MM: They are also coming to us to share their ideas to see how we can help them.
How has the college historically been involved in commercialization?
LB: We’ve had faculty involved in it. We’ve worked with companies. But these occurred not because of any plan or encouragement. It simply occurred because faculty personally wanted to get their technology out there. Now the university and college are asking how they can create opportunities and encouragement to increase that.
A lot of it is education. Faculty, the few that have approached me, they just don’t know the first thing to do. They don’t have the experience and they don’t know how to go about working with Purdue to make it happen. They don’t understand the patent process, the need to get rights to their own technology. They don’t know the impact their technology might have. They don’t understand their options. They think there is too much time commitment.
Our goal is to facilitate all this. We are trying to create a program to make this more efficient. We are in the fact finding stage ourselves, the relationship-building stage, with the IEDC, PRF, OTC, the Entrepreneurship Center.
MM: Now, we have most of the pieces to the puzzle. We just haven’t figured out how to fit them together. People on campus are starting to understand that.
LB: Getting the pieces to work together has been a challenge. But, it seems like everyone wants to do it and wants to work together. I didn’t foresee that.
How important is it to have faculty buy in to this?
MM: When I was in Utah, I met with a faculty member who started four companies. The university brought him in as a mentor for other faculty. There is trust in that relationship. We can do that here. Everyone that we’ve talked with says this has to be faculty-led. Some outside consultant can’t initiate this. If we can get passionate faculty behind this, it will just take off. MIT’s success is owed to a handful of professors years ago. Thirty years later, they are recognized as the leader in commercialization.
Have you seen faculty take an interest in this effort?
LB: We haven’t done any grand announcements. Faculty know our task force exists. I’ve had about five faculty approach me. They are interested in starting companies. Faculty see this as a good thing.
Traditionally, if you wanted to start a company, you would be low key. You wouldn’t want to take it center stage. That’s not why you were hired. The strategic plan says this is important. We want you to be doing this. You can make a big impact.
What are the benefits for faculty to commercialize their ideas?
LB: I don’t know if you can predict all the benefits. If faculty create successful companies, there’s an impact to the state; there could be new jobs. The college should care about that. There’s potential for revenue back to the college and its departments.
MM: It leads to more research funding. It becomes a cycle. There’s potential impact for our community, this entrepreneurship ecosystem. Many other startups will take off in our community. It’s not going to happen overnight, but people will want to be a part of this. It only improves quality of life, the economy, jobs.
LB: If we are conscientious as faculty entrepreneurs, we’ll look for things to bring back to Purdue, to benefit the college and Purdue.
MM: It leads to more industry engagement. They will no longer feel that calls from Purdue are solicitations for donations. Rather we will have something additional and powerful to offer, to help them innovate and build their businesses. They will want to talk with us and work more closely with us.
LB: We have credibility to connect with industry and get in the door.
When you were starting your company, BATS, what were some of the things you wished you had known about the process?
LB: It would have helped to understand the patent process a bit better. Looking back, I could have been more proactive and found that information. I would have liked to know more about the process of negotiating rights to my idea. I’m hoping establishing a formalized program will help in our relationships with IEDC and PRF. Hopefully they recognize how to work better with us and provide more help to a startup. That support is key. Creating trust and a sense of teamwork and support.
What is your leadership team currently working on?
MM: We are wrapping up the discovery phase, putting together a specific project plan with goals and deliverables. We aren’t doing it alone. We want it to be a part of a greater team effort. The Office of Technology Commercialization is guiding us and what we should be doing to create this entrepreneurial ecosystem over the next 9 to 12 years. What are the steps to take?
Two documents in Sharepoint provide more details about the team’s findings and recent activities.
Document one is a pdf of a Powerpoint delivered at a Strategic Plan retreat in September.
Document two is the team's quarterly update for fall 2010.