Marketing the Mind
The route from idea to implementation
Great universities are birthplaces of great ideas.
Faculty members are trained to explore, ponder, research and discover. Students are encouraged to open their minds and exercise their creativity. In classrooms and laboratories, professors and students apply the basic principles of the scientific method to tackle problems, everything from unraveling the mystery of a tiny molecule to boosting the thrust of a rocket engine.
In the process, they come up with all sorts of cutting-edge, potentially marketable ideas. But getting those great ideas into the production pipeline is a very different sort of task. Brilliant men and women who have spent years studying microbiology or nuclear physics are often out of their realm when it comes time to file patent applications, negotiate license agreements or raise venture capital.
Over the years, research universities have recognized the need for taking on a deliberate role in the commercialization process. They know there is both money to be made and prestige to be gained by helping scholars take those early steps to protect their inventions and develop products from their ideas.
Powerhouse universities such as those in the Ivy League generate millions of dollars in revenue each year because of the technology and consumer products that grew from faculty laboratories. In the past few years, UTSA has accelerated its involvement in this bench-to-market process by adding infrastructure and staff.
The university also has taken the added step of reaching out to off-campus businesses that need research partners to help test ideas.
“Our goal is to be part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem of San Antonio,” says Cory Hallam, senior associate vice president for research administration.
UTSA always had a technology licensing office, Hallam says, but the pipeline from its labs was pretty small. That is changing as UTSA stokes up its research capabilities by investing in additional faculty, adding lab space and adding advanced degree programs for students. The investment is paying off, and UTSA is now well-poised to both promote commercialization and reap financial benefits from it, according to Hallam. In 2009 alone, he said, there were 24 invention disclosures by UTSA faculty, the initial step in protecting intellectual property that grows from university-sponsored research. The advances came in a wide range of fields, including vaccine development, biohazard detection, data encryption and nanoparticle technology.
Most notably, a 10-year collaboration between bench scientists from UTSA and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio generated UTSA’s first revenue-generating license agreement. Bernard Arulanandam, a specialist in the immune properties of mucosal tissues, and his research partner, microbiologist Guangming Zhong, from the health science center, successfully negotiated a licensing agreement with pharmaceutical giant Merck for a potential vaccine against the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia.
Going to an established company was the right move, Arulanandam says. The agreement gives the two professors an infusion of financial support to continue developing their idea. They also gain the huge benefit of Merck’s expertise and infrastructure for conducting clinical tests and fulfilling federal regulatory requirements.
Any vaccine is years away from being ready for use, Arulanandam says. But if things go as hoped, the licensing agreement could result in answers to questions about a devastating disease as well as substantial royalty revenue for both the scientists and the universities that supported them.
To Arulanandam, the college’s new associate dean of research for scientific innovation, the agreement is a story of a successful collaboration between two scientists from different schools who overcame the barriers that sometimes inhibit such faculty partnerships.
Brilliant men and women who have spent years studying microbiology or nuclear physics are often out of their realm when it comes time to file patent applications, negotiate license agreements or raise venture capital.
“We are two inventors who came together and combined our strengths,” Arulanandam says.
But their success also demonstrates the challenges that faculty members must overcome as their laboratory research bears fruit. Arulanandam went back to the books himself and enrolled in UTSA’s Executive M.B.A. program to come to grips with the business side of being an inventor.
“I didn’t even know what questions to ask. What skills do I need to get to that next level?” he said. His dilemma is a typical one for most doctoral-level scientists, Arulanandam said. “One of the downsides of working on a Ph.D. is we are trained to be very focused on a very small problem. We are not trained to be looking outside of the box.”
With his new degree and new business experience, Arulanandam has a new position at the university that puts him in the role of a mentor for fellow faculty members with “cool ideas,” as he puts it. “I want to offer them guidance, but I also want them to do it themselves,” he says. “I want to tell them, ‘Believe in yourself; take a gamble and we will back you up.’ ”
There were 10 invention disclosures from the College of Sciences in 2009 and the first two months of 2010. They ranged from Arulanandam’s vaccine technology to assays for use in stem cell research to potential new drugs.
It takes a shift in campus culture, both by administrators to support translational research and by faculty members to think outside their laboratories, Arulanandam says.
“If you unleash the faculty and allow them to be creative and do cool things, they will produce new products to the benefit of consumers and to the benefit of the university,” he says.
The university support was a key element for Arturo Ayon, a physics professor who is developing the Baby Guardian, wireless technology that could someday be used to monitor infant breathing and heart rates and protect against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). He utilized UTSA’s expertise in seeking patent protection, and recently made an investor connection to get seed money for his own company, Limelight Technologies. He and his students now are building and testing prototypes that will be used to market the product to potential investors.
A patent is a two-year process, Ayon says, and a more convoluted one than he was ready to undertake by himself. As his idea advances, he will need university connections to find investor capital for skilled management staff that can handle details such as manufacturing contracts, package design and marketing plans.
“From the standpoint of electronics and design and testing, I am comfortable,” Ayon says. “If you ask me to establish contacts in China and get something manufactured overseas, I have no idea how to do that.”
In exchange for its support, the university owns a share of the new company and holds a licensing agreement that will pay royalties for any consumer products that grow from Ayon’s research.
One young inventor who figured out a lot for himself is UTSA alumnus David Gonzales II, who graduated in 2008. Gonzales majored in biology, but his inventive mind also was drawn to engineering. Working from home in between biology labs, he came up with the Layered MagWheel, a new approach that would use high-efficiency magnetic energy to propel automobiles. In 2008 he won the ConocoPhillips Energy Prize competition, which offered a $100,000 award to an aspiring entrepreneur with ideas about energy-conserving technology. He also won $25,000 from the energy company in earlier rounds of the competition, giving him a chunk of capital to start his own company, Impact Advanced Concepts, LLC, and begin taking his ideas from paper to a prototype.
“Traditionally, many universities have made it difficult to translate intellectual property from the bench to the market. We want to make the university a stop for companies that are looking for ideas—not a barrier.”
—Cory Hallam, senior associate vice president for research administration
Even though he developed his idea on his own, independent of university laboratories, Gonzales did find help through UTSA, via periodic “boot camps” that Hallam developed to help budding entrepreneurs. “I did find that very helpful. They covered things like grant opportunities, legal issues, venture capital, fund raising,” says Gonzales. Since graduating, he also has capitalized on networking opportunities through UTSA faculty and alumni and found some additional investment capital because of that.
He said he supports the university’s move to add more resources to help students and faculty, but students and faculty are not the only ones who need help developing their ideas. Across South Texas, small and large businesses employ their own creative people who come up with ideas for improving products or launching new ones. They often need outside help from researchers who know how to objectively test and develop new products. The new Center for Innovation and Technological Entrepreneurship hopes to offer that service to the regional business sector.
Hallam says UTSA is poised to assist with incubating ideas, connecting companies with university labs that will test ideas, and training company employees on new technology.
“Traditionally, many universities have made it difficult to translate intellectual property from the bench to the market,” he says. “We want to make the university a stop for companies that are looking for ideas—not a barrier.”
The entrepreneurial center also can lease space on campus to companies that need a lab, Hallam says. It can integrate this with training opportunities for science students and for other students who need to learn how to prepare business plans.
“We need to connect the dots,” Hallam says, “from early phase ideas to products and services and having the necessary people trained in how to build and manage those products.”
He wants companies throughout South Texas and partner universities in the Rio Grande Valley to turn to UTSA for their research, development and training needs.
“We want people to start looking to us for solutions,” Hallam says. “It is part of becoming a truly outstanding research university.”