Technology transfer – Turning researchers into entrepreneurs

Technology transfer!
Turning researchers into entrepreneurs

Where do new companies come from these days? The seeds for growth are planted in research, innovation, and technology transfer. These sprouts hold great promise to economically transform this region. Research refers to the search for knowledge through systematic investigation. Innovation is defined as the introduction of something new or different. Technology transfer refers to the process to bring new developments in medicine, science, software, manufacturing, and materials to the marketplace for the benefit of many people. NASA was one of the first agencies to engage in technology transfer. While NASA conducted extensive research to ensure safe missions to the moon and the International Space Station, new products and materials were discovered. Well-known NASA spinoffs include shock absorbing helmets, invisible braces, smoke detectors, ear thermometers, joystick controls, medical imaging, cordless power tools, and firefighter suits made of the same fire resistant material as space suits.

Over the past 15 years, more medical facilities, academic centers, government agencies and professional associations have actively joined in the research mission to improve safety, public health, building materials, technology software, the environment, and medical treatment. In Northeast Ohio, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and the Cleveland Clinic are the big players in the research and technology fields. Each year, they are awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research grants to fund these endeavors. University of Akron and Kent State University as well as other hospital systems also specialize in areas of research and technology. As a result, much new information has been discovered and promising results documented.

The process of technology transfer seeks to recognize which new information is particularly beneficial, and then pursue partners or “commercial licensees” to make the discoveries accessible and profitable. Tech transfer specialists work with the inventors, researchers and developers to capture value from the academic, scientific research. They find ways to incorporate this new information into products, software, medical devices, and materials. At times, they help turn the creators and discoverers into the business entrepreneurs.

Northeast Ohio has become more receptive to innovation and technology. Jobs are created and talent stays at these start-up companies. CWRU opened the current technology transfer office in 2002. Joseph Jankowski, Ph.D., a tech transfer professional, is the associate vice president for technology management at CWRU.

“In 2010, we received 216 invention disclosures from faculty and medical staff,” Jankowski explains. “We had to distill 216 down to a realistic 40 or 50 applications to pursue patents for them. Each patent application can take up to five years to process and costs $20-$25,000.”

CWRU spends close to $1 mil a year on patents. With a stable of 13 professionals comprising the technology transfer staff, they review and determine whether to pursue patents or not. When things work well, these patents become the early bases for commercial products or even companies, with CWRU “spinning off” about four spinoff companies annually.

While start-up enterprises are valued, many times the appropriate path for an invention is to license a new discovery to an existing commercial entity — typically a larger company with the resources to manufacture and market new products. “We execute between 30-35 licenses a year,” said Jankowski. “Eighty percent are medical licenses and 20 percent are related to the physical sciences, specialty materials, and advanced energy fields. Entrepreneurs and researchers from the Greater Cleveland community can also come to CWRU when searching for partnerships, grant opportunities, consultation, or to use our facilities,” he added. These different pathways are examples of the active roles where the CWRU technology transfer office can play a significant role.

CWRU also saw a need to drive inventions and accelerate business growth outside the University in Northeast Ohio. In 2002, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, and CWRU co-founded BioEnterprise, a business initiative designed to grow health care companies and commercialize bioscience technologies. In 2003, Case co-founded JumpStart, an organization that provides intensive entrepreneurial development assistance. Early stage start-ups are considered a high risk investment, but if successful, the rewards can be significant.

Acting as investors, universities, hospitals, companies, and government entities can decide to provide early funding with anticipated returns on investment. Some of the stronger companies in Northeast Ohio like Lubrizol, Athersys, Arteriocyte, and QED trace their roots back to CWRU. Through the technology transfer process, these companies have been able to grow, bringing their discoveries to market.

“We have to look at the complete value of the company — not just the service or the product, but also the management which usually makes all the difference,” said Jankowski. “Entrepreneurs have to be flexible and opportunistic because advancing an early-stage invention to an ultimate market position will be a complete roller coaster ride. Start-ups are not for the faint of heart.”

From Cool Cleveland contributor Susan Schaul, who says the act of writing is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. The challenge lies in getting the pieces to fit together and make sense.

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