Delaware Biotechnology Institute
The University of Delaware has tapped the head of its public-private life-sciences alliance, a longtime DuPont executive, to play a key role in achieving one of its goals for the 21st century: enhancing its commercialization of life-science and other technologies.
David Weir, director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute since its inception, has been named to run UD’s new Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships.
University President Patrick Harker, who named Weir to the position, has said the new office is intended to boost the university’s role in state and regional economic development, and create a one-stop shop for academic, business and government leaders seeking access to UD professionals, programs and services.
Weir’s new duties include “working to encourage and enable innovation and entrepreneurship; grow, utilize and leverage the University's knowledge-based assets; and create and capture new economic and community benefits,” according to a UD statement.
Weir joined UD in 1998, a year before the biotech institute was established. In 2001 the institute’s 72,000-square-foot home was completed, and the institute has grown since then to more than 110 affiliated faculty members, more than 20 resident faculty research groups, four endowed chairs, and about 130 student researchers.
While Weir’s appointment was announced earlier this year during a UD-hosted economic development conference, “Creating a Livable Delaware: Pathways for Enhancing Prosperity and Quality of Life,” he has only begun a transition to the new job that will end when he formally takes the post July 1. UD has convened a search committee to find a successor to Weir at DBI.
Weir’s appointment is part of an unfolding effort by UD to enhance its national and international prominence. UD is expected to flesh out that vision at its first-ever University of Delaware Forum on May 10, when it unveils a new vision for the university's future based on a recently completed Strategic Planning Initiative.
The initiative, available here, commits UD to six initiatives toward ensuring that the university is “recognized as one of the world’s great universities – the exemplar of an engaged university that cultivates learning, develops knowledge, and educates global scholars and citizens to the highest standards of achievement.
BioRegion News recently spoke with Weir about his new position, and the challenges of strengthening UD’s tech-commercialization and economic-development efforts.
What drew you to your new position?
I’ve got to go back to 1998. When Astra bought Zeneca, then-Governor [Thomas] Carper, who is now our senator, put a little task force together, because AstraZeneca had decided to leave Delaware. He and his cabinet and the little task team — I was on that task team — set about putting a proposal together to keep them in Delaware, which we did. They have quadrupled in size since then.
Part of the agreement was to build an environment in the state that was conducive to life sciences. And one piece of that was to establish an institute. In February of ’99, Tom Carper committed to that, and asked me — I had just come back from working in Brazil — if I would take it on. So I had planned only to be here for maybe a short while. Since then, DBI has drawn — it’s now a $150 million operation. So I’ve actually been here 10 years, when a big piece of DBI’s and partnerships has grown. And when [UD’s current president] Pat Harker came here, knowledge-based partnerships were one of his big interests, so last November, in his first partnership conference, he announced his intent to start this office. So in the last month or so, I’ve been having that conversation, and they asked me if I would take that on. I agreed to do that.
What do you see as your goal in the new position?
It’s to bring the university’s assets and capabilities and inventions out into the world, to improve quality of life and economic development, to develop partnerships that will allow us to use these inventions. It’s to act as a portal in and out of the university, so that the external world can know what’s going on in the university, and the university can understand what the needs of the outside world are. It’s to continue to contribute to the Delaware Science and Technology Council, whose job it is to develop the science and technology assets in the state. It’s to develop an effective technology transfer process. It’s about economic development. It’s about developing the university’s knowledge base of assets, to make them available to partners, to develop partnerships that will produce economic and social benefit.
Another important point will be, to encourage and enable innovation and entrepreneurship within the university structure, within the university culture — so that I can help utilize and leverage the university’s knowledge, and create and capture new economic and community benefits. When you do that, under that comes technology transfer. You need a portal to get in and out.
The Association of University Technology Managers places the university at either the middle or the lower-middle end in tech commercialization when you look at license revenue, patents filed, or startups. Why has been the case historically? Why is the University of Delaware ranked low in that area?
I think it’s really [an issue of] priority in what gets on or gets done. There were plenty of other priorities. Now we have a new president who was dean of the Wharton School [of business at the University of Pennsylvania]. He has expressed a keen interest in the university’s role in economic development. So immediately [it is] a slightly higher priority. And when you then talk about partnerships, then you begin to talk about partnerships with the private sector and with the public sector. Then, you need a process that will allow that to happen. We’ve had a process, but perhaps it hadn’t been given the emphasis
Few universities make money on technology transfer. Those that do, usually, have a big hit, like Gatorade or a stem cell. Most of them, it’s a service that they provide to the faculty, to encourage them to be innovative and entrepreneurial. And a lot more of the young faculty today are more interested in that than some of their older colleagues. So the world is changing a little bit.
Our first goal is not to make any money out of this. It’s to provide capability for the faculty to build and to encourage them to innovate, be entrepreneurs, so that all the knowledge based assets that the university has and creates, will be enabled to capture new economic and community benefits. So the first goal is to get a process in place that does that. We don’t expect to make money on it unless we hit a home run, which we would take if we had it. Perhaps once we have the right process done, then the profitability will come after that.
How much additional staff will the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships have?
Two people are over there at present — myself … and a manager. We’re going to keep it flat and lean to begin with, get heavily involved ourselves. We have little staff support; we have to roll up our sleeves and get directly involved; it’s the only way to learn what the landscape looks like.
What sort of additional public support will the university need toward this whole effort?
When you talk about partnerships, an important partnership is with the public sector. One of the ideas we have is developing a cyber-infrastructure in the state. That is probably best done with a public-private partnership, so that the public sector sets the policies, etc., the necessary legislation, and the private sector makes the investment and runs the entity.
Clearly we’ll want to partner very closely with the state, in terms of economic development and the acquisition of federal grants, which is important to the state. And that also involves partnerships with the academic and medical communities. And just walk closely, hand-in-hand, with the state.
The university is private yet publicly supported. Has that been a help or has it impeded tech commercialization?
I think it’s been a very good partnership. I think it’s a good balance. We at DBI have very close connections with the other academic institutions in the state, and with the legislature and with the governor’s office. From my standpoint, it’s been a very, very good partnership.
What sort of goals are you looking at, in terms of licensing patents and royalties? Are you looking for a specific quantity or rate of increase?
I haven’t set any specific targets, because I just don’t know enough about it yet. We will set some targets only to develop our budget. We’re set some targets that will have some stretch in them, and hopefully set some goals for ourselves.
To what extent is the new effort anchored on the life sciences as opposed to other sciences?
This will encompass all the areas: Energy, environment, human health, agriculture. It’s going to encompass all the areas that the university feels that they have expertise and will innovate in.
Could you talk about the university’s programs in the life sciences? Where has UD chosen to specialize?
We focus on plant and animal science; the animal piece is primarily poultry. We have a significant capability in plant molecular biology. [UD] is a Land Grant university, with all that capability. It works very closely with [Michael Scuse,] the secretary of agriculture in Delaware. Secondly, we’re involved in human health. We don’t have a medical school. We have close associations with Thomas Jefferson University [in Philadelphia]; they function as our medical school.
One of our goals is to set up a biomedical research capability in the state, bringing together Christiana [Care Health System], the university, the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and the Nemours Foundation. The three areas we’re focusing on are cancer, cardiovascular and neuroscience. We’ve got a very big program financed partly by [the National Science Foundation] on building an environmental science capability in the state. We have just established a University of Delaware Institute of Energy Conversion. We’re interested in cyber-infrastructure and all that means to the academic and economic development. We’re in areas where we think we have the capability or can build the capability to have an impact.
You mentioned the university announcing as earlier as November it would create your office [see BRN sister publication BioTech Transfer Week, Nov. 12, 2007]. What if any other steps have there been toward meeting UD’s economic-development goals? Any startups or facilities?
We have developed the strategic plan for the university. In early May, we’ll begin to publicize that, which will set out the strategies for the next few years. On May 10, the president will begin to announce some of the actions that are going to be taken. There’s already planning going on around facilities and expansions. There’s a lot going on.
You have been the head of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute for about a decade. What aspects of that position can you draw upon as you switch to your new position?
It’s very much about people, working with people, working with partnerships, bringing science and technology into the public arena, interpreting the importance of technology to the public, developing ways to finance the development of that technology. I work very closely with our Congressional group. I spend a lot of time in Washington with NSF, [the US National Institutes of Health, and the US Department of Defense]. I’ve spent 35 years in the private sector, so I understand that side of it. I understand the academic side, and I understand the public side. I’ve got a fair amount of experience in these areas, which will probably stand me in good stead.
Would DuPont’s involvement in the university be expected to increase as a result of your office?
Absolutely. That’s a big objective, a big objective. It works both ways. Industry doesn’t know how to get into a university very well. And the university doesn’t know how to get out to the private sector. So we’re going to be setting up a gateway, setting up a portal, to allow easy access in and out.
Besides running the center, are you going to do any other work for the university? For instance, would you teach?
No. I’ll have plenty to do in the office.