Vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate division
University of California, Merced
Name: Samuel Traina
Position: Vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate division; and director, Sierra Nevada Research Institute, University of California, Merced
Background: Various faculty positions, Ohio State University, 1985-2002; PhD, UC Berkeley, 1983
As the most recently established campus in the University of California system and the first new UC campus in more than 30 years, UC Merced can do nothing but grow on all fronts.
In particular, UC Merced is fostering an entrepreneurial atmosphere with a heavy focus on technology transfer, despite facing a plethora of challenges, Samuel Traina, vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate division, told audience members during a keynote speech at the University Startups Conference last week in Bethesda, Md.
For instance, the school is located in a severely economically depressed region of California that is home to several of the 10 poorest cities in the state.
This in turn leads to a dearth of local technically trained workers and, despite being only about a two-hour drive from the venture capital-rich San Francisco Bay area, a severe lack of VC funding for university spinout companies.
Despite these hurdles, UC Merced has made significant strides early on in its research and tech-transfer activities, racking up some $38 million in research grants since 2003, 22 invention disclosures in the last year, and one undisclosed but “significant” licensing deal that accounts for the majority of UC Merced’s royalty revenues. The school also plans to open several incubator spaces for university startups and a medical school in the next five years.
While much of this success can be chalked up to the fact that the school is part of the UC system’s tech-transfer machine, it also has to do with UC Merced’s conscious effort to recruit faculty with an “entrepreneurial spirit” who have been or are currently involved with startup companies, Traina told conference attendees.
BTW caught up with Traina following his talk to further discuss what it takes to create startup companies on a “startup” campus.
What year did UC Merced open its doors?
Undergraduate instruction started in 2005. We actually started taking graduate students in 2004.
At what point did you start considering entrepreneurial and tech-transfer activities?
I wasn’t there for the planning that went on for, say, 15 years before we started. As a UC campus, I think there was always an expectation that this would be a part of things. Actually, the first patent happened in 2003, with a faculty member that we brought in from the University of Chicago, [engineering professor] Roland Winston. One of the recruiting strategies has been to look for faculty that were engaged in entrepreneurial activities – not so much from the perspective of raising money, but from the perspective of achieving the university’s mission of tech transfer, disseminating information, and getting research out into the real world where it needs to go.
You mentioned during your talk that the school had 22 invention disclosures since the start of the program, and that the school has three faculty members associated with startup companies?
Actually that’s 22 invention disclosures in the last year.
And did you say there were three faculty members associated with startups, two of which came to UC Merced already as part of a company?
We’ve had one faculty member [help start a company here], one faculty member bring a startup company along with him, and an assistant professor who was involved in a startup when she was a grad student at UC Berkeley.
You mentioned that last person during your talk – she was developing lung-on-chip technology?
Yes, that’s not her principal subject area, though. She does nanofabrication and lab-on-a-chip work for single-cell spectroscopy. Her name is Michelle Khine, and the name of the startup is Fluxion, which is located at the [California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences] at UC, San Francisco.
You have a biomedical research institute and several other institutes devoted to environmental studies, such as the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and the UC Merced Energy Institute. Where is your breakdown in terms of disclosures in the areas of biomedical science, engineering, and environmental science?
I would say a third of our disclosures are in energy; a third in biomedical science; and a third in engineering.
And UC Merced will open a medical school?
The plan is for the medical school to open in 2013. We haven’t gotten full approval yet, so we’re in the process of getting it through the system-wide university senate, as well as the local campus faculty; and then approval from the board of regents [for the UC system]. But our target is 2013. It may be one or two years after that.
There will actually be two medical schools opening in the UC system at roughly the same time – the other one will be at UC Riverside.
You also mentioned that because of the lack of VC [funding] in the area, you have garnered some interest from VCs in Asia?
I wouldn’t really call it venture capital, but there is a number of industry interests in Asia and Europe that have been talking to administration as well as individual faculty about either licensing technology or starting companies in the US around technology associated with UC Merced. Part of this, I think, is because of the international reputation of our chancellor, professor [Sung Mo] “Steve” Kang, who is the first Korean to be the head of an American research university.
How big is your tech-transfer office?
It’s actually run by one person, the associate vice chancellor for research, Richard Miller. He and I and the rest of the support staff in the office of research try to back him up where we can. He has actually done quite a bit to encourage invention disclosures. He has a very entrepreneurial spirit, and he joined us from Texas A&M University.
But we also have tremendous support from the system-wide office of the president [of the UC system] in Oakland.
You mentioned that you probably wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of the ten-campus UC system. Can you give an example of how that support has played into your tech-transfer activities?
The office of general counsel in Oakland has helped us. They provide us with legal support. Right now we don’t have anyone to do marketing at UC Merced, so we’re working with people at the Oakland office to help market the technologies of the faculty. When we get nascent programs concocted by faculty and industrial partners, we always pass them by our colleagues in the office of the president to get their input – to ask them if there is anything that we’re missing. So they’ve provided a bit of guidance, but the decisions are ultimately ours. They’ve played a very supportive role, but the UC system is set up so there is a system-wide set of rules, but each campus is autonomous to some extent, and there are a number of decisions made at the local level. But we very much rely on the support of our colleagues in the office of the president to basically make smart decisions.
William Tucker, [UC’s executive director of research administration and technology transfer], and his staff have in particular been tremendously supportive and have helped the campus enormously.
There is some revenue sharing for schools within the UC System. Are you exempt from any of these rules to help get you on your feet?
Actually, almost all the revenue flows back to the campus and to the inventors themselves. Very little of it flows to the board of regents. There is a specific breakdown as to what goes to the inventors. There is also a specific breakdown as to what stays centrally and what goes to the campus. What happens once it arrives on the campus is up to the campus. Each campus has its own set of guidelines for that.
There are some incubator spaces in the works. Specifically, you mentioned a 200,000-square-foot building to open on campus in 2008, right?
This is part of our plan for increasing entrepreneurship. The current planned use for about 5,000 square feet of that space is going to be for entrepreneurial activities around startups. The rest of the space will be for faculty labs and offices.
There is also a satellite facility about 11 miles from us, which is a former Air Force base. Right now we occupy a roughly 30,000-square-foot space there. We will use some of that space for start-up capacity. This facility is being developed by [real estate developer] Federal Development, which specializes in redeveloping closed military bases. Their plans for that are a technology center, so they’re pushing hard to bring in a number of corporations, and to establish additional facilities that could be used for startups.
Then we have a planned university community, which will be a couple thousand acres – a large tract of land at the southern perimeter of the campus that will provide housing for university employees in the future, but also space for industrial research centers and startup activities.
Can you comment on the importance of facilitating research between UC Merced and other UC institutions to further tech transfer?
There is already a tremendous amount of collaboration. It is very extensive. We have several large multi-year, federally funded research centers at Merced, and almost every one of those involves collaborations between faculty throughout the system, but led by faculty at Merced.
So as I mentioned, we have tremendous support from the UC office of the president for this venture; but we also have tremendous support from the faculty around the system that want to see Merced attain a status equivalent to the rest of the UC campuses.