The University of Toledo has committed $10 million to its non-profit regional economic-development and tech-commercialization arm to establish a fund that will invest in university technologies that have commercial promise, school officials said recently.
The fund, which will be derived primarily from revenues generated through auxiliary services on the UT campus, will likely support federal grant-matching programs and proof-of-concept awards to speed commercialization of UT research, according to the university.
In particular, UT will use the fund to maximize a recent influx of life sciences research commercialization opportunities that have arisen since the university merged with the Medical University of Ohio two years ago, a UT representative said this week.
The fund, which UT announced late last month, will be managed by the school’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Enterprises, formerly known as the UT Science and Technology Corridor, a non-profit organization designed to provide a bridge between UT research and education and the regional economy.
As it builds the fund, STI Enterprises will also undergo a modest reorganization that will pull under one roof several of its economic development-related functions, such as technology transfer, business incubation, global initiatives, research and development, and workforce advancement.
The idea for the fund and for the reorganization arose from the “collective observations of participants in our innovation system that we needed to make strategic improvements to take advantage of opportunities for our university to contribute its knowledge in ways to help the economy … and to identify some funds or we were going to be constrained,” Mary Jo Waldock, special assistant to the president for economic development at UT, told BTW this week.
UT’s tech-transfer program has traditionally been modest for a school of its size and for the amount of external research funding it receives, Waldock said. According to licensing activity survey data from the Association of University Technology Managers, UT’s technology-transfer program has barely broken even in recent years.
“We found that an important limiter [to commercialization] has been not having resources available to do some of that early-stage development.”
From 2004 to 2006, the most recent years for which data are available, UT spent approximately $108 million on research. Employing just one full-time licensing official, the school during that period turned its research into 95 faculty-derived invention disclosures; about 30 licensing or option agreements; and just over $1 million in licensing revenues.
Traditionally, UT’s most fruitful research discipline from a commercialization standpoint has been engineering, particularly thin-film photovoltaics, Waldock said. However, both the scope and size of UT’s research and commercialization opportunities are drastically changing as a result of the school’s 2006 merger with the Medical College of Ohio, which became the UT Medical Center and Health Science Campus.
After the merger UT grew to include more than 23,000 students, 7,000 employees, an annual research budget of about $55 million, and has the third-largest operating budget from among Ohio’s public universities, UT said. The size of UT’s enrollment or operating budget prior to the merger is unclear.
This influx of research activity and resulting commercialization opportunities is one of the main reasons the school established the investment fund, Waldock said.
“Since we merged with the Medical University of Ohio, the biosciences side of things is growing, and we are realizing a lot of growth in research and have put a stronger strategic emphasis on commercialization opportunities,” Waldock said. “We found that an important limiter [to commercialization] has been not having resources available to do some of that early-stage development.”
UT is still working out exactly how it will apply the $10 million investment fund, Waldock said. The ideas of proof-of-concept grant awards and research grants that match selected researchers’ federal funding have been discussed. The school does know that a yet-to-be-appointed investment committee and STI Enterprises’ board of directors – both of which will comprise UT administrators and faculty and regional business leaders – will have the ultimate say on how the school spends the money.
The university has also hired an independent consultant, Eva Klein and Associates, to recommend ways for using the fund to maximize its impact on commercialization and regional economic development. Klein and Associates is expected to deliver a report to the school in the first quarter of 2009.
UT already has a plan in place to capture revenues to support the investment fund. “It’s not from student fees, it’s not from state subsidies, and it’s not from tuition dollars,” Waldock said. Instead, UT will look to scrape up the change from auxiliary services, which include, for example, revenues from vending machines, parking, food services, and the university bookstore.
“We’ve already identified the areas for generating revenues,” Waldock said. “The investment opportunities are not all evident to us at this point. We know we have to invest in early-stage development, and we may end up having to invest in some facilities. We really don’t know for sure. The decisions on where investments will be made will depend on some diligent work on our part.”