The U's Technology and Venture Commercialization office is moving ideas from discovery to practical application.
The canning jar containing a quart of murky, brownish-yellow water sits at the front of the room. The water has been disinfected with iodine and is unquestionably unappealing. “If anyone wants to try it, we’ve got cups,” Jason Young calls out to the 50 or so investors, inventors, entrepreneurs, and industry executives gathered to hear about some of the latest technologies discovered and developed at the University of Utah.
No one grabs a paper cup from the stack for a drink of the cloudy water. But there is plenty of interest in an invention that will make iodine-treated drinking water unnecessary. Young BS’01 MD’10, a business development manager with the University of Utah’s Technology and Venture Commercialization (TVC) office, passes around a prototype of the solar-powered water purification device. No bigger than a cell phone, the white plastic rectangle contains a maze-like framework holding a coiled metal wire arrayed with microscopic titanium dioxide nanotubes. Using ultraviolet light to produce free radicals, the device can decontaminate a liter of water in five minutes. It weighs about one ounce and is expected to retail for around $40.
The water purifier was invented a year ago by Krista Carlson, a research associate with the U’s Metallurgical Engineering Department, and Swomitra Mohanty, a research assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and they are looking for help to get it to market through their company SolaPur. More than a hundred inventions such as their water purifier are disclosed each year at the University, and more than a dozen start-up companies are formed annually to market them. Assisting them is the U’s Technology and Venture Commercialization office. Since 1967, that office and its precursors have been responsible for managing all of the University’s intellectual assets, as well as those of its medical centers and hospitals, the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and ARUP Laboratories. The technology commercialization office has helped launch leading companies such as Myriad Genetics, BioFire Diagnostics, and Anesta, as well as hundreds of lesser-known, smaller start-ups.
Each year, the U office manages dozens of new patents and licenses, invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in technology development, and brings to the mainstream inventions that range from a compound that could prove to be the next major class of antibiotic to a new type of radiant floor heating. In the last 45 years, 5,500 inventions have been disclosed by researchers and faculty at the University of Utah, and 230 spin-off companies have been launched from those technologies.
“If you think about a modern university, there are traditionally two really big legs of a stool: teaching and research; and those are really important,” says Bryan Ritchie, who has led the University’s TVC office since 2011 as the U’s associate vice president for research commercialization. “What the U has done is legitimize a third leg of the stool, which is commercialization.”
Like its counterparts at most universities across the country, the U office has historically handled “technology transfer” and been responsible for licensing inventions to existing companies and start-ups. At that point, it was the licensees’ job to develop and ultimately commercialize the technology. During the past three years, however, the U office has been focusing on building value for inventors and the University through not only licensing and patenting intellectual property but building sustainable ventures and finding viable markets for those inventions. Since the office’s inception in 1967, 21 faculty members have become millionaires by commercializing their inventions, including 15 or 16 in the last decade, and revenue back to the U from the companies and technologies totals tens of millions of dollars each year. “We’re not just transferring but also commercializing and creating ventures,” Ritchie says. “I think we’re really leading the country in how this happens.”
Because the University owns all intellectual property at the U, faculty and researchers must disclose their inventions to the U Technology and Venture Commercialization office. The University does not own the intellectual property of student inventors, so their work with the TVC office is optional. The office currently assists about five to 10 student-led companies. It also works closely with the U’s David Eccles School of Business, which just this fall was ranked by Princeton Review as a top-25 school for entrepreneurship for the fourth straight year. The U tech commercialization office collaborates, too, with the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, which broke ground in October on the new Lassonde Studios student center. Each year, about 40 students also work with the TVC office as interns who assist in the commercialization process.
U Technology Commercialization Numbers
Darrell M. West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization, applauds the U’s focus on giving faculty the tools they need to create a successful business around their inventions. “That’s where faculty members need help,” he says. “Professors are great coming up with ideas, but it’s hard for them to develop a business and find capital and bring their ideas to market.” Like the U, universities across the country are recognizing that successfully commercializing technologies goes beyond tracking the number of patents filed and start-ups launched each year, he says. “Universities are putting much more effort into commercialization. They know there is value in what is being created by faculty and students.” Commercializing technologies also brings money. “Almost every university is looking for new revenue sources,” West says. “Research and development is a big growth area.”
The U has consistently ranked near the top among universities in the United States for the number of spin-off companies it has created, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. In 2010, the U ranked first in the country, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in creating new start-up companies around research-based inventions, and it was first again in 2011. But the recognition also came with questions about whether the University was starting companies that would last, and Ritchie notes that only 3.4 percent of inventions at the U have produced revenue and just .7 percent have returned more than $1 million to the University.
“At some level, I do think it is important that we are a leader in start-ups, but we don’t have to be No. 1,” Ritchie says. “If we’re in the top five, I’m really pretty happy. It’s only one metric; it’s only one measurement. It’s an important one, but by itself, it doesn’t mean all that much because we could start a hundred companies that weren’t worth anything, and who cares, right? So we do want to start a lot of companies, but we want to start a lot of good companies. We want to create the foundation for these companies to succeed.”
The focus is now less on the number of start-ups and more on the quality of management, investment, and structure of the start-up, he says. The University’s new vision also came with a new name. Formerly the Technology Commercialization Office, TCO became TVC last year to emphasize its dedication to building ventures.
Past practice too often shelved inventions after they were disclosed, and that was the end, Ritchie says. Now, after an invention is disclosed, his office makes contact with the inventor within two weeks and begins assessing the technology, its possible applications, and options for commercializing it. The office then helps protect the intellectual property by completing patent filings. Next, staff members gather feedback from experts and define milestones to help bring the invention to market.
Ritchie also has started an “engine process” at the U. Every eight weeks, the Technology and Venture Commercialization office brings in about 100 industry executives, entrepreneurs, and private investors from across the country to attend “engine meetings.” There, researchers and inventors present their latest inventions and technologies. The company executives sometimes decide one of the inventions is worth their investment, but mostly they advise TVC staff on how to assess the potential of the technology, and they aid with networking and identifying markets. The business leaders even advise on whether an invention is worth continued investment from the TVC office. Last year, the office put more than $500,000 into University of Utah technologies for development.
Bradley Collings, a businessman who has launched several of his own information technology and records storage companies, is a regular at the engine meetings. Collings, who lives in South Jordan, Utah, began attending after TVC leaders invited him, because he thought it would be a good networking outlet. He now volunteers tens of hours each week as a business mentor to faculty members and TVC staff. The thrill of starting up a company and moving inventions from lab to market keeps him coming back, he says. “Don’t kid yourself: There are some amazing technologies coming out of the University, and I think people are recognizing that.”
The “engine process” also is used to identify inventions and technologies that have no chance at commercialization, Ritchie says. “Some people see us as a gardener over here, and maybe that’s true to some degree, but we’re also an executioner. We want to make sure we’re not putting resources and time into things that don’t have an opportunity, and we want to learn that as fast as we can.”
Ritchie knows firsthand the intricacies of creating a company. He began his career in the computer industry, developing products for companies including Iomega, Megahertz, and Novell. Fluent in Thai and Laotian, he spent a year in Asia working under a Fulbright-Hays fellowship. He also owned and sold two of his own companies, both in the computer industry. “My first company was wildly successful and took off, just exploded. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this entrepreneurship thing is pretty easy.’ My second company was a slog,” says Ritchie, who holds an MBA from Brigham Young University and a doctorate in political economy from Emory University. “It was so hard, and we ended up exiting and selling, but not in a way that made us very much money. I learned far more from the second venture than I did from the first.”
After launching his companies, Ritchie worked as an economics professor at Michigan State University for a decade before coming to the U. He has a patent pending at Michigan State for technology he invented to convert biomass into alternative energy and is currently going through that institution’s technology transfer process. “Michigan State is like most universities. They’re almost waiting for a lucky bounce of the ball to have someone come in and pick it up.”
Cynthia Furse BS’86 MS’88 PhD’94, associate vice president for research at the U and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, agrees that the TVC office’s work is much different than what other universities are doing. “I originally had this delusion, and it is a delusion, that the scientist takes their idea and tosses it over the fence to the business community, who then markets it,” says Furse, who started her own company, LiveWire Innovation, in 2002. “That’s a brilliant idea, but it doesn’t work. So you have to do a combination of teaching the technologists about business and teaching the business side about technology, and that’s when you see how it starts fitting together.”
Furse is working with TVC to find markets for LiveWire, which produces handheld devices that detect faults in electrical wires. The technology is replacing outdated, cumbersome, and sometimes dangerous equipment in mines and could be used by the airline industry to find faulty wiring in planes.
Another start-up company the TVC office is assisting, Curza, was created last year to commercialize antimicrobial research by Dustin Williams PhD’12, a U research professor of orthopedics, and Ryan Looper, U associate professor of chemistry. Curza is in the process of commercializing more than 130 classes of the chemical compounds that kill, disperse, and inhibit growth of bacterial biofilms, including those that have developed antibiotic resistance. The researchers have secured two patents and 12 provisional patents and are working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prepare for clinical trials. The hope is that the compounds can be used in an ointment to treat serious wounds, such as diabetic foot ulcers or military injuries. The compounds could also be used in industrial settings to disperse bacteria buildup.
Feng Liu, chair of the U’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is working with the TVC office to commercialize Nanoxene, a multi-component nanocomposite he discovered that may change the way homes are heated. The substance graphene is a key ingredient of the material, which Liu paints onto plastic sheets that have electrodes on each end to conduct heat. The sheets can be laid under flooring to provide radiant heating. Liu has received a provisional patent and hopes to market his technology in the next two years to the high-end home market through his new company, Life-E.
SolaPur’s Carlson and Mohanty expect to begin taking orders for their water purification device next July, and plan to market it to backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The purifier was a huge hit at last year’s Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, where they showed a prototype. The solar device also may eventually be used on a larger scale to help in developing nations that lack ready sources of clean drinking water.
At the recent U meeting where the device was presented to investors and industry leaders, Young, from the U’s Technology and Venture Commercialization office, noted that it could be very appealing to the 8.7 million backpackers in the United States who make up an estimated $435 million market, or to anyone for that matter who doesn’t like the taste of iodine. At the end of his pitch, he pointed once again to the jar of discolored liquid. “Anyone thirsty? We still have this water up here.”
–Kim M. Horiuchi is an associate editor of Continuum.