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CSU Promotes ‘Supercluster’ Plan to Spur Tech Transfer in Biomedicine, Clean Energy

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In an effort to boost its tech-transfer activities and translate more university research into products and services to address “global challenges,” Colorado State University has recently implemented a new multidisciplinary “supercluster” model for public-private partnerships, university officials said last week.
 
CSU said that the new strategy will initially leverage the university’s existing research strengths in infectious disease, cancer, and clean energy and create concentrated, multi-disciplinary corpuses of research and development with the aim of increasing tech commercialization and public-private partnerships.
 
The university expects the strategy to double the school’s patenting, licensing, and startup companies launched by the end of its fiscal year 2008; and nearly triple its tech-transfer activity by FY 2011.
 
University officials promoted the new model during an event dubbed “CSU Accelerates,” held last week in New York. In attendance were company representatives, investors, and media, whom the school sought to encourage following innovation at CSU more actively with the hope that they invest earlier in resulting spin-out companies.
 
During a luncheon that featured the presentation of research awards to select CSU faculty and remarks by former New York State Governor George Pataki, CSU President Larry Penley told the audience of approximately 50 people that CSU leadership had traveled to New York to “strengthen the ties between the university and those who can help bring its technologies to market.”
 
Penley said CSU developed the supercluster concept in an attempt to “go beyond research and teaching” in one of three areas: infectious disease, cancer, and clean energy. CSU established its superclusters in the first two areas late last year, and followed with the clean energy supercluster last month.
 
In an interview following the event, Penley told BTW that he hatched the idea for the superclusters soon after he joined the university as president in 2003.
 
“I sought challenges that have been called great global challenges — ones that we cannot address alone, either as a state or a country,” Penley said. “When I looked at the university and its strengths, I saw possibilities of really linking those strengths with some of those challenges.”
 
Upon his arrival at CSU, Penley said, technology transfer at the school was “not very successful, and I think most people would say that. We felt we needed a more active approach. We certainly didn’t want a situation — and you hear this from some universities — where they had a lot of ideas sitting on the shelf, and finally they brought their tech-transfer office in and those ideas are now being turned into licenses, patents, and startups.”
 
Instead, Penley said, CSU sought an approach that “didn’t allow something to move from research laboratory to the shelf, but instead, really moved it rapidly out there into the commercial space.”
 
Drawing inspiration from Harvard economist Michael Porter’s theory of economic clusters, Penley and colleagues at CSU drafted the supercluster idea, which would draw on existing strengths within the university and promote close collaboration between departments at the school with an eye toward commercial opportunities.
 
According to Mark Wdowik, president and CEO of CSU Ventures, the non-profit arm of the CSU Research Foundation that is responsible for managing university IP and the supercluster program, many universities have recently begun employing a similar cluster theory to promote regional economic development.
 
“One I’m very familiar with is in North Carolina,” said Wdowik, who was previously executive director of tech transfer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “There, they take a look at the universities’ core strengths on the research side; at industry in the region; and where there is overlap to apply resources. In general, from a commercialization, licensing, and sponsored research perspective, you should end up having a greater impact on the local economy by doing that,” he said.
 

“We have been stupid in the past and given away good ideas. Once it’s out there you can’t get it back.”

In that spirit, CSU Ventures will apply resources to commercially viable research through individual “corporations” representing each of the superclusters: MicroRx for infectious disease; NeoTrex for animal cancer; and CEnergy for the clean energy initiative.
 
“If we were really going to commercialize things, we needed a linkage between that multi-disciplinary effort and something that sits at the edge of the institution,” Penley said.
 
Each corporation is responsible for taking the reins on a promising technology, including seeking funding for it and performing additional research to either prepare it for market or make it more attractive to potential licensees or venture capitalists.
 
According to CSU, each supercluster has appointed a chief scientific officer who oversees research and academic activities for that area. Together the chief scientific officer and a chief operating officer will jointly focus on forging business alliances and developing new applications and opportunities for the research via CSU Ventures.
 
A technology transfer specialist working for a division of CSU Ventures seeks opportunities for patents, licenses and startups, as well as equity investors. Two additional support staff will facilitate and encourage increased funding respectively from foundations and the federal government, CSU said.
 
“All universities do the best they can with what resources they have, with the expertise they can bring in on the tech-transfer side, and that’s all they can do,” Wdowik told BTW. “A traditional tech-transfer office might throw out a potential compound for some sort of application, for instance. Most companies today aren’t even going to be willing to look at that unless you push it to the point where it’s at Phase I or Phase II trials.”
 
By comparison, “we want to build the partnerships that will take it past that point, validate it in the marketplace, and build in those kinds of IP agreements from the start,” he added.
 
Bio Clusters
 
At the CSU Accelerates event, leading faculty members from each of the superclusters discussed the specific research strengths and their potential for commercialization in individual breakout sessions.
 
For instance, in the broad category of translational biomedicine, CSU professors Barry Beatty, Stephen Withrow, and Wayne McIlwraith provided overviews of the school’s initiatives in infectious disease, non-human animal cancer, and animal models for osteoarthritis, respectively. The initiatives show a particularly strong slant toward animal models because the school, based in Fort Collins, generates most of its translational biomedicine activity from its College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
 
For instance, Withrow, who is a professor and chair in oncology and a veterinarian, discussed the opportunities for commercialization in the area of canines as animal models for cancer, particularly bone and blood cancers. He said that the canine model – though less convenient in some respects – is a better model for many human cancers than cell culture or even traditional mouse models.
 
Withrow said that advantages of the dog model include the fact that its physical size is more relevant to humans; cancer development is spontaneous and frequent, with 4 million new cases of cancer in dogs each year; owners are typically engaged in the process due to an interest in helping their and other people’s pets; and the model allows for repeat tumor sampling and maintains an intact immune system.
 
A guest of the panelists, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center professor John Healey, also endorsed the dog model in investigating human cancer. “I have no stake in this other than the fact that it is important for the advancement of my field,” Healey said, citing a recently conducted clinical trial for an osteosarcoma treatment in which the drug target was first discovered in dogs.
 
Withrow said that the new supercluster model has already helped both faculty and the administration become smarter about the way intellectual property is managed and revenue is generated from it at CSU. “We have been stupid in the past and given away good ideas,” Withrow said. “Once it’s out there you can’t get it back.”
 
Even without considering the commercial opportunities the animal cancer program provides in the area of human health, “there is still a $40 billion market out there for pet health care,” Withrow added.
 
Beatty, promoting the infectious disease supercluster at CSU, said that the school draws on decades of experience in this area, with a particular focus on biodefense and emerging pathogens; mycobacterial disease, especially tuberculosis; vector-borne diseases such as Dengue fever; and, more recently, food safety.
 
He said CSU has resources at hand such as a brand-new high-throughput cell and small-animal screening facility; a major GMP manufacturing facility; biosafety level 3 laboratories; a new “Research Innovation Center” slated to be completed in 2010 that will house university spinouts and other companies; more than 150 faculty and staff; and approximately $40 million in annual research funding.
 
“The supercluster concept is allowing researchers here to begin thinking about product-oriented research,” Beatty said.
 
Overall, CSU is hoping that it can parlay the supercluster initiative into increases in tech-transfer activity across the board. In fiscal year 2006, which ended on June 30, 2007, the school reported 42 invention disclosures, 34 patent applications, eight issued patents, 12 licenses executed, and five startup companies.
 
Using those metrics as a starting point, CSU said that by the end of FY 2008 it hopes to increase yearly invention disclosures by 75 percent; patent applications, patent issuances, and licenses executed by 50 percent; and to double the number of university startup companies. Similarly, from FY 2008 to FY 2011, CSU hopes to increase yearly inventions, patent applications, patents, and licenses by another 75 percent; and university startups by another 50 percent.
 
“We’re really very proud and very excited about this concept, and I suppose we’ll be able to tell if it’s working if our patenting and licensing and commercial ventures increase over the next several years,” Penley said.

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