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BU Opens Entrepreneurial Education Institute to Bolster Tech-Transfer Efforts

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Joining a growing cadre of US universities seeking to increase the rate of successful research commercialization, Boston University’s School of Management last week announced the creation of the Institute for Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization.
 
The institute, called ITEC for short, will work closely with BU’s Office of Technology Development and will bring together resources from Boston University’s Medical School, School of Public Health, Law School, College of Arts and Sciences, and College of Engineering, which includes biomedical engineering, photonics, and physics.
 
ITEC will provide entrepreneurial assistance to undergraduate and graduate students throughout BU by providing customized education and training programs at the School of Management, pairing student interns with for- and non-profit corporations, and offering dual degrees from the School of Management and BU’s other schools and colleges.
 
Jonathan Rosen, executive director of ITEC, told BTW that the goal of the center is to educate potential entrepreneurs in order to increase the probability of long-term commercial success for university spin-outs.
 
“We have had a formal program in training and education for entrepreneurs interested in concentrating in what we call entrepreneurial sciences for about six years now,” Jonathan Rosen, executive director of ITEC, told BTW last week. “It’s been providing excellent service, but primarily to students of the School of Management.
 
“What’s new here is the emphasis on student involvement at Boston University,” Rosen added. “We have all the parts – a medical school, law school, school of public health, engineering college – and they work very closely together. In that context, we are … chartered by the university to provide entrepreneurial experiences and education for students across the whole campus.”
 
Specific educational components of ITEC will include full business majors, non-degree diploma programs, and executive training programs open to all BU students.
 
In addition, ITEC will offer intensive full-day entrepreneurial “boot camps,” where any student, “for the cost of a sandwich,” can get a “full-day exposure of high-level entrepreneurial issues,” Rosen said.
 
In some cases, where technology commercialization is perhaps a more salient issue, BU will be making some ITEC educational programs mandatory. For instance, Rosen said, every graduating biomedical engineer will now be required to take an educational unit in entrepreneurship to graduate.
 
Lastly, ITEC will strive to take the entrepreneurial education process beyond graduation by offering similar experiences to Boston-area entrepreneurs, many of whom BU hopes will have emerged from the university. This program will be called the Entrepreneurial Research Laboratory, or ERL.
 
“The ERL is a place where our graduating students can take an idea they’ve developed through a business plan and actually start the company,” Rosen said. “As opposed to a traditional incubator, this is really a continuing education opportunity for them. They can also contribute to the education process by taking on interns, judging business plan competitions, [and] giving lectures.”
 
BU joins a growing list of US research institutions that have established institutes or programs with a focus on entrepreneurial education. Traditional funding sources are on board as well: Last month, the University of Texas at Austin won a two-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop its “Idea-to-Product” program to guide university-based technology transfer and educate young scientists on how to map basic research to real-world commercialization opportunities (see BTW, 3/26/2007).
 
As of now, BU will receive no such funding, Rosen said. As opposed to UT-Austin’s I2P program, which had already been up and running for a few years, the charter for ITEC was just approved in February, and the office is “sort of bootstrapping it right now” with “huge support” from BU faculty and the board of trustees, Rosen said. He declined to provide further details of the center’s funding.
 
Rosen estimated that there are upwards of 130 similar programs or entrepreneurship centers in the US right now.
 
Rosen said that ITEC is aware that such programs “can teach the institute a lot about how to do some parts of what we do,” he said. For instance, ITEC is working with the Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurial assistance organization established in the mid-1960s in Kansas City, Mo., to enhance its educational efforts. The Kauffman Foundation is the 26th largest foundation in the United States with an asset base of approximately $2 billion, which it uses to foster entrepreneurship around the US.
 
“On the other hand, we’re the only one that has BU as our base, and we think that offers some very unique opportunities,” Rosen added. “Some universities and their schools of management are very closely tied to their cities – New York University comes to mind. Their programs in some ways are more directly parallel [to ours]. Our strength is that we can really take advantage of a really highly integrated campus, where we can meet easily with people from public health, engineering, and even fine arts.”
 
Enhancing OTD
 
ITEC will work most closely with BU’s OTD on the research front. Ashley Stevens, director of the OTD, will simultaneously serve as director of research programs at ITEC, an arrangement that Rosen said was “unusual,” but one that he hopes will improve the efficiency of technology commercialization at the university.
 
Rosen stressed, however, that BU isn’t necessarily interested in increasing the rate of technology commercialization, just the quality of it.
 

“I hope it will increase the rate of successful transfers. The track record for university spin-outs – in terms of sustainability measured five years out – is pretty abysmal.”

“I hope it will increase the rate of successful transfers. The track record for university spin-outs – in terms of sustainability measured five years out – is pretty abysmal” at universities in general, Rosen said. He added that too many universities have put “tremendous pressure and focus on counting the number of companies they start,” and not enough focus on whether those companies have the chops to succeed.
 
According to Rosen, such a philosophy “tends to drive things toward the higher-risk, ‘I’m not really sure I should have started that company’ end of things. I hope that through our educational focus, we can help people make better choices about which technologies to start companies around, and how to prepare better business plans and financial models so that five years out, 80 percent of them are doing well instead of 10 percent,” he said.
 
“The way I see it, ITEC is an educational activity, but the OTD is a transactional activity,” said OTD’s Stevens, who plans to typically spend three days a week at OTD and two days a week at ITEC. “But as in professional schools, students get to practice. In technology commercialization, universities can give the students practice by associating them with our transactional activities.”
 
Stevens also said that the BU OTD has grown enough in the past several years – from a two-person office when he arrived in 1995, to eight full-time employees now – that it alleviates any fears that his double duty might compromise the office’s efficiency.
 
On the contrary, Stevens told BTW that the educational program could directly impact technology commercialization success, offering up as an example a course he will be teaching tentatively titled “Bench to Bedside.”
 
“In this, we’re taking actual university technology initiatives and getting the students to evaluate them for us in interdisciplinary teams,” Stevens said. “We get, for example, a management school student, law school student, med student, even an engineer, and then they evaluate the technology and whether it could be the basis of a company.”
 
Stevens told BTW that approximately two-thirds of BU’s research is in the area of life sciences, with about half of that on the medical campus and the other half on BU’s main campus. He added that invention disclosures and technologies available for licensing tend to follow the research percentage breakdown, but added that BU’s College of Engineering has been particularly prolific, about four times more so than the school of medicine, in recent years.

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