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NSF Awards UT-Austin $600K Grant To Educate Students About Tech-Transfer Risks, Rewards

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The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Texas at Austin a two-year, $600,000 grant to further develop a set of “philosophical” tools to guide university-based technology transfer and educate young scientists on how to map basic research to real-world commercialization opportunities.
 
If successful, the project is expected to help bolster UT-Austin’s own tech-transfer efforts, provide a technology commercialization blueprint for young scientists worldwide, and hopefully attract more females and underrepresented groups to science and engineering careers.
 
The project, called the Idea-to-Product (I2P) pilot program, is a collaborative effort between faculty and students within the University of Texas at Austin’s Colleges of Natural Science and Engineering; McCombs School of Business; Center for Nano and Molecular Science and Technology; and department of Computer Sciences.
 
The project will also include employees of the UT-Austin Office of Technology Commercialization, the Austin Technology Incubator, the IC2 Institute, and various local corporate partners.
 
Steven Nichols, director of the department of engineering at UT-Austin and principal investigator on the grant, told Biotech Transfer Week that when the school began developing the program a little over five years ago, there were three major drivers.
 
First, Nichols said, he and his colleagues involved in tech transfer at UT-Austin noticed a disturbing trend at the various business plan competitions held throughout the year at Texas-based universities.
 
“Inevitably the judges end up looking at one another on many of these proposals and saying, ‘There is no product, there is no technology, and there is no market. And if a product existed, it would violate the second law of thermodynamics,’” Nichols said.
 
“I saw more and more of these and decided that we have an education gap in trying to get our students to understand what we’re doing here.”
 
In addition, Nichols began to investigate the failures of regional start-up companies, and found that in many cases, the same issues that plagued participants of business plan competitions spelled the downfall of young firms. Namely, “they never would have succeeded, never could have succeeded, and it was foreseeable that they could not succeed; not because there were business execution problems, but there were never customers to begin with,” Nichols said.
 
Lastly, Nichols, who previously served as associate vice president for research at UT-Austin, noticed a lack of understanding about the goals of his own school and others’ tech-transfer offices.
 
“One of our first jobs was to rationalize and reorganize our technology commercialization efforts,” Nichols said. “I found that we had no idea what we were doing or why we were doing it. As I looked around the US, I concluded that most universities have no idea why they’re doing this. They think they’re doing it to make money. And if that’s the case, they’re doing a lousy job of it.”
 
Nichols and colleagues concluded that the root of these issues was at the educational level, and that universities weren’t doing a good job of teaching their grad students and post-docs “to think through how the technology in a laboratory applies to real social needs,” he said.
 
The result was the establishment of the I2P program, a set of tools and guidelines for fostering “integrated technology commercialization” that can be applied to a broad range of university research programs, according to the NSF grant abstract.
 
“I am not saying that money doesn’t matter, “Nichols said. “It does. You can’t do this unless you at least break even. But by driving the mission of the university, and asking how the office is supporting that, we’ve gone from about $6 million in revenues per year, to a little less than $9 million in revenues per year, in five years, by emphasizing the right issues. That’s the reason for the program and the justification.”
 
Specifically, the I2P program has three main components: the introduction of entrepreneurial ideas into the educational curriculum; a technology innovation mapping tool that uses reverse function mapping to explore potential markets and commercialization opportunities for research; and a set of I2P competitions within the University of Texas system and eventually, nation- and worldwide.
 

“Most universities have no idea why they’re doing this. They think they’re doing it to make money. And if that’s the case, they’re doing a lousy job of it.”

Nichols said that UT-Austin is designing the guidelines and technology-mapping techniques so that they can be readily adopted by other universities and research institutions. “The heart of the program has got to be the education and the research and the tools,” he said. “The tools we’re coming out with will be philosophical tools that many software packages can support. We’re developing the idea of the I2P program, and helping other universities to do that.”
 
Specific deliverables for the NSF grant include the export of the I2P tools to other universities across the US and the world, the development of workshops to train faculty members in the concepts, and the establishment of a variety of business plan competitions that the UT-Austin group hopes will spur the type of creative thinking necessary to translate basic research to marketable products.
 
In the meantime, UT-Austin will hold its seventh annual I2P business plan competition April 27-28 and plans to host its fifth annual global I2P competition Nov. 2-3, which will feature invited university teams from North America, Europe, and Asia. In addition, it is planning a national I2P competition in the near future, though a date or location has not yet been established.
 
“This is an additional approach to commercialize technologies from universities,” said Nichols. “We’re not trying to replace or supplant what they’re doing now. The purpose of this program originally was education, not research or commercialization.
 
“But we’re finding that if we do that well, the students in the lab doing the research are now working with law and business students to identify markets,” Nichols added. “Although the purpose of this is not to commercialize technology, we can’t help but commercialize technology as we do this.”
 
According to the NSF grant abstract, the program will also “support the global outreach and participation of underrepresented groups,” in particular because UT-Austin awards the largest number of PhD degrees to Hispanic students in the US, and is sixteenth in PhDs awarded to African-American students.
 
Furthermore, Nichols said, I2P will also work with the Society of Women Engineers and the Women in Science and Engineering group to increase the recruitment of female students in science and engineering.
 
“Engineering in particular has a hard time attracting females,” Nichols said. “Some studies indicate that the female students that do go to universities in engineering are very interested in helping others. And we’re doing a very poor job in explaining what we do as engineers if they think we don’t try to help others. This is one way to make sure they understand that is, in fact, our goal – to serve society.”

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