The Kauffman Innovation Network, a subsidiary of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, is collaborating with university researchers to add a suite of researcher-friendly tools to its online repository of intellectual property available for licensing from US universities and non-profit research institutions, a Kauffman official said last week.
According to Kauffman and some early users, the resource is unique because it is run by a non-profit organization and thus can focus on providing leads for as many technologies as possible as opposed to just those with significant commercial potential.
However, some early users also believe that while the website has the potential to serve as a one-stop shop for companies and entrepreneurs seeking to license university technologies, it may have difficulty amassing a critical mass of technologies – particularly those in the physical sciences arena – to significantly influence the rate of university technology transfer.
The resource, called the iBridge Network, is currently in beta stage and houses nearly 1,000 licensable technologies from nine universities. It has recently signed on several additional institutions that have yet to add their technologies to the database.
According to Laura Paglione, director of the Kauffman Innovation Network, the beta version of the site does not yet feature tools that encourage researcher participation and spur inter-researcher collaborations.
“We are working with a group of researchers to determine what the features are that would make them want to come to the site – not just once in a while, but to maintain some information on the site,” Paglione told BTW last week. “Really with a lot of this licensing and collaboration, the tech-transfer office is involved to some degree, but the discoveries and the like happen researcher-to-researcher. We’d like to build up that functionality to make those things easier, because it will drive traffic for our schools.”
Paglione declined to provide specific details about what would be added to the site, but said that it would comprise the kinds of tools that scientists use on a daily basis as part of their work, such as tools used in technology portfolio reviews at their own universities, for finding collaboration partners, or for identifying grant opportunities.
“We’re taking that approach to entice them to put their information online about the research they’re doing, and the stage of their research,” she said. “By doing that, it creates an environment that researchers want to be a part of, rather than just taking a tech-transfer point of view.”
Kauffman hopes to add the tools to the site and launch the updated version by the end of the year, Paglione added.
Despite its nascent stage, universities are currently uploading technologies to the site, which has already facilitated a few hundred licensing deals, particularly in the software space, where the site has helped consummate more than 250 transactions, according to Paglione.
“This is specialized software – so it might be to analyze a cell line, for example,” she said. “Sometimes schools charge for those technologies, and sometimes they don’t. Some of them are really small deals, but they are executed, and because they’re all online, they are things that the school might not do if they didn’t have a way to do it.”
The underpinnings of the iBridge Network began almost three years ago, when the Kauffman Foundation established a division called Advancing Innovation, the goal of which was to strengthen the interface between universities and industry and examine the role universities play in the innovation life cycle in the US.
According to Paglione, research conducted under the new division revealed that the pathway by which technologies move from university laboratories to the marketplace was fairly narrow.
“We wanted to highlight the fact that there are multiple pathways for those innovations to get out to the marketplace,” Paglione said. “The iBridge Network is one of the ways we are trying to facilitate that exchange.”
Almost two years ago Kauffman established the Kauffman Innovation Network to build the iBridge Network. As part of that initiative, Kauffman recruited several pilot institutions – University of Chicago, University of Arizona, Washington University, University of Kansas, Cornell University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and University of Wisconsin – to provide feedback on the site’s development.
Use of the site is free to companies, entrepreneurs, and other private entities that want to search technologies for possible licensing leads. Member universities and research institutions pay a nominal fee that depends on the number of technologies being listed; for instance, a small school with extremely limited resources might be allowed to place a few technologies on the site for free, whereas an institution such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation would need to pay “a couple of thousand dollars,” Paglione said.
Kauffman charges for the service, she added, because it is at least attempting to break even so it can maintain the site, and because it found that schools were much more engaged in the process when they were paying.
There are other one-stop web portals for licensable university technologies, most notably the collection of technology-specific portals maintained by tech-transfer firm UTEK. Although one of UTEK’s strengths is that it offers many potentially profitable licensing opportunities from top universities, it also is somewhat constrained by the fact that it is a for-profit entity, and thus cannot simply list all available technologies from its university clients.
“If you’re operating as a for-profit, you necessarily have to make decisions based on what you think might be a profitable technology,” Paglione said. “We try to get a breadth of technologies, and get as many up on the network as possible, because we find that many connections happen, and even when there is a small audience there ends up being some demand for those technologies.”
Stephen ONeil, director of special projects and outreach services in University of Arizona’s Office of Technology Transfer, told BTW that the site also differs from for-profit counterparts because “the universities, particularly the pilot universities, really did have an active role in designing iBridge and how it would function, and I think that makes a big difference. We’ve had a chance to say, ‘Well, that’s not really how the transaction goes,’ and work that into the design of the system. And that’s very different from other models out there.”
Tim Honaker, Chief Operating Officer in the Office of Technology and Intellectual Property at pilot institution University of Chicago, corroborated Paglione’s comments, telling BTW that the real value in the site so far is that it facilitates licensing of a number of smaller technologies that a tech-transfer office might not normally have time to actively market.
As such, most of the licensing activity so far has been in the areas of software and particularly freeware, where companies can negotiate a license directly through iBridge without even needing to contact the university.
“I think the jury is still out as to whether web-based marketing is going to be an effective distribution channel for university technologies.”
“If there is some sort of arcane technology that the researcher wants out there, and we have one or two hits per day with that kind of transfer, that is great,” Honaker said. “Our primary purpose is to serve the faculty, and this allows us to do that cost-effectively. We don’t have to be very involved with it – we just have to get it up on iBridge and then the transactions happen.”
However, Honaker added that for more valuable technologies, such as those in the physical sciences or engineering space, iBridge is not as effective a resource so far.
“I think the jury is still out as to whether web-based marketing is going to be an effective distribution channel for university technologies,” Honaker said. “If there was a tremendous amount of interest and it was an established channel in which there was clear value, then you’d see a lot more technologies up and available that way.”
Honaker said that the University of Chicago likely has 500 to 800 technologies that it should have on the website, but doesn’t. “Part of the reason for that is when you look at the limited resources under which we all operate, marketing those technologies is sort of the last thing we do,” he said. “Other people are much better at it. Clearly Stanford, WARF, and Columbia are getting pretty good at it. But overall, tech transfer offices aren’t great marketers to begin with.”
Despite some misgivings, Honaker said that he believes there is the potential for greater value in the site, and that his institution actually has eschewed maintaining its own site in favor of using the iBridge Network as its only web-based portal for listing available technologies.
“As a tech-transfer office, we had a website office that suffered from benign neglect, and was pretty pathetic in total,” Honaker said. “It makes much more sense from the perspective of someone who is interested in acquiring technology to have a place to go that is closer to an Amazon.com of university technologies.
“If I’m going to spend some money to build a website, why not [use] a website where … they’re taking a very user-centric view as opposed to a product-centric view for the entrepreneur or VC that’s acquiring the technology – giving them one place to go to find a diversity of university technologies to sort through?” he added.
U of A’s ONeil likewise told BTW that the site may not have yet reached a critical mass for effectively transferring technologies in most areas, but particularly in life sciences. However, he said that it might help once researcher-friendly tools are added to the site.
“If you think about biological research tools – cell lines, or whatever – some human being at the university has to package them in dry ice and ship them off somewhere,” ONeil said. “We are still feeling our way along the path.
“Anyone can go to the website and swipe a card and place an obligation on an individual professor or group,” he added. “Some professors think that’s just fine – they love to have their materials go out as widely as possible. But some professors say, ‘Why don’t you check with me before obligating my time?’ I think as things mature and we have more experience that it doesn’t get abused, that this will be used more.”
ONeil also said that U of A has seen measured success using the site, again mostly in the software and freeware space. The school has also generated several leads through the site for physical sciences-related technologies, but the actual number of success stories is hard to gauge because the only way the school knows whether a company used the site to identify a technology is if they tell ONeil, he said.
“iBridge is not and was never intended to be a replacement for anything else,” ONeil said. “It’s intended to do two things: Have an aggregated portal across multiple universities, and I think it’s very successful at that; and two, for the cases that fit, it is meant to be a low-transaction barrier way to disseminate innovation.”