The University of California at Santa Barbara this week launched a new program designed to speed tech transfer at the university by supporting UCSB faculty attempting to commercialize research.
The program, called the Venture Acceleration Initiative, will provide services such as consulting, business networking, and, eventually, seed funding to its entrepreneurial faculty members to accelerate the process of starting up companies based on innovations developed at the school.
The VAI is also in discussions with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation about joining a new Kauffman-organized network of similar programs, called proof-of-concept centers, at US universities and non-profit research institutes, representatives from both organizations said this week (see related story, this issue).
However, as its name implies, the VAI is for the time being more of an initiative than a physical POC center with dedicated offices.
The program first took on life in early 2007 as an extension of UCSB’s tech-transfer program, which is currently split into an Office of Technology and Industry Alliances and a Technology Management Program. While the OTIA focuses primarily on external research collaborations and managing intellectual property, the TMP provides would-be entrepreneurs educational programs in management, entrepreneurship, new product development, and marketing.
According to Matt Tirrell, dean of engineering at UCSB and one of the main drivers behind VAI, the program was kick-started when it brought on a former entrepreneurial consultant named Don Oparah through the UC system Discovery Fellows program. This program, funded by the UC Industry-University Cooperative Research Program, provides funding to the UC system schools to hire faculty members that can help link the UC academic mission with that of California’s “R&D economy,” according to its website.
“After talking with Don about what he could do as part of this fellowship – because he was basically a gift from the office of the president – we decided we wanted to build up our resources so that we could in fact do something like the von Liepig Center [at UC-San Diego] or the Deshpande Center [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology],” Tirrell told BTW.
Unlike those centers, however, which were founded on multi-million-dollar gifts from alumni, UCSB is attempting to start its program essentially from scratch.
“We have not as yet attracted a major gift, so we’re not in the position to provide a lot of funding to carry items forward, but there are still a lot of things you can do without money,” Tirrell said. Examples include networking with the business community, mentoring faculty, and bringing in teams of business students from area schools such as UC-Los Angeles to provide market research and business plan development services.
“Don has done a very thorough job of this; he’s essentially met with every faculty member in engineering and science; talked about their ideas and their potential commercial utilities; and sounded them out about their own inclinations toward exploring that,” Tirrell said. “If they didn’t have any, or if they did and didn’t realize them, then what were some of the stumbling blocks?”
Since Oparah’s hiring, the VAI has brought in an additional Discovery Fellow, Raphael Simon, a PhD in molecular biology from UCSB and graduate of the school’s Technology Management Program, who will work with Oparah to further build VAI.
Although the initiative has already provided these limited services for the better part of a year, this week it held a kick-off event intended to increase awareness of the program among the entrepreneurial community, and to bring together would-be university entrepreneurs, tech-transfer staff, and members of the business community.
In addition, it was disclosed this week that the various parts of UCSB’s tech-transfer program, including the VAI and the Technology Management Program, have made the school a candidate to join a network of similar “proof-of-concept” programs being organized by the Kauffman Foundation and highlighted by MIT’s Deshpande Center and UCSD’s von Liepig Center.
The school will have to seek funding elsewhere, however, if it wants to establish a formal POC center.
“Our job is to help create more tech-transfer revenues, some of which might somewhat paradoxically be generated by easing up on some of our efforts towards licensing and maybe taking more equity positions in various types of ventures that are generated here.”
“We’ve been talking with [the Kauffman Foundation], and we even had a [grant] proposal,” Tirrell said. “My understanding is that they’ve had a lot of various kinds of proposals. For now, they have demurred from funding any individual ones, but hope to help all of us by introducing us to their contacts and by helping us generate support for our own local activities.”
Lesa Mitchell, vice president for Kauffman’s Advancing Innovation program, confirmed that it has decided not to fund UCSB or any other POC centers for the time being.
“I’ve been contacted by a number of other universities in the US that were interested in us funding their model,” she said. ”I’ve told them that everybody wants us to fund their model, but our interest is simply in bringing them together and shining a light on the universities that we think are practicing real entrepreneurship and commercialization.”
The overarching goal for the network, Mitchell added, is to bring together “people who are already doing the activities so they can figure out what they can learn from individuals that are in the exact same space.”
Another option for UCSB is to generate internal funding for some of its entrepreneurial add-on programs through its tech-transfer efforts.
“I think ultimately we really have to put a portion of tech-transfer revenues into this,” Tirrell said. “Our job is to help create more tech-transfer revenues, some of which might somewhat paradoxically be generated by easing up on some of our efforts towards licensing and maybe taking more equity positions in various types of ventures that are generated here. But yes, we have to figure out some other way to generate the money.”
According to the UC system annual tech-transfer report, for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2006, UCSB tallied 94 invention disclosures, held a portfolio of 480 inventions, and reported about $3.3 million in licensing revenues, placing it seventh in three cases among the 10 UC system campuses.
Tirrell said that the single most productive patent to come from UCSB research, in terms of licensing income, is an atomic force microscopy technology that was licensed and commercialized by well-known laboratory instrument manufacturer Veeco. According to the UC system annual report, that invention was the 17th top-earning invention in the UC system, earning about $735,000 in FY 2006.
UCSB has also increased the scope of its research expertise recently. Sherylle Mills Englander, director of the office of technology and industrial alliances, estimated that a little more than half of its research and invention disclosures have a life sciences slant or application, mostly in the area of medical technologies.
“VAI is a wonderful service, and I think it’s going to do some great things, but I think they’re going to be like the icing on the cake of a very long history of faculty supporting other faculty and entrepreneurs before there were any formal programs,” Englander said.
“I think VAI is poised to do some detail work that can’t be done in these more general discussions,” she added. “It’s an enormous benefit to our office, because we’re very small. It’s nice to be able to have somebody else that can concentrate on some of the business aspects so we can really work with the company on the intellectual property.”
Englander also thinks that the entrepreneurial spirit and external resources that exist in the region will go a long way toward bolstering the VAI and UCSB’s tech-transfer efforts in general.
“We have a fairly well-off community, which is a big luxury for a university,” Englander said. “We also have some pretty considerable entrepreneurship for our size. We’ve got about three generations of entrepreneurs here.”