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WashU-led Team Using $600K NSF Grant to Support Early-Stage Regional Tech Transfer

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A group led by faculty members at Washington University in St. Louis has been awarded a two-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support a new program designed to stimulate entrepreneurship and tech transfer at WashU and other regional research institutions.
 
The program, called Innovation Acceleration Partnerships, is designed to step in at the most nascent stage of technology commercialization by providing would-be entrepreneurial researchers with resources and mentoring. It will also focus in particular on developing university-born biomedical and engineering technologies.
 
The initiative is the brainchild of Kenneth Harrington, managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Washington University. He is also principal investigator on the grant.
 
According to the grant’s abstract, the IAP seeks to “eliminate four roadblocks – lack of time, education and training, social networks, and publication delays – that are major barriers to translational research, patenting, entrepreneurial team recruiting, new company foundation, and funding.”
 
The program will seek to flesh out research being conducted primarily at Washington University and the University of Missouri-Columbia, although it will also seek to cultivate academic work at regional academic centers such as St. Louis University, the University of Missouri-Rolla, the University of Illinois-Edwardsville, and others.
 
The bulk of the funding will support the salaries of four postdoctoral fellows and a coordinator to help address these roadblocks. The fellows will be charged with completing some of the earliest activities related to technology commercialization that the researchers simply do not have time to do, Harrington told BTW.
 
“One of the constraints [of tech transfer] that has not really been addressed is how to support researchers when they just have an idea,” Harrington said. “They’re not ready for tech transfer [or] an invention disclosure yet. They just want somebody to talk with them about it and to do some staff work,” he said. “Everybody has got a full-time job without deciding to become an entrepreneur.”
 
Many times the university tech-transfer office is charged with these duties. However, as universities have increasingly emphasized tech transfer, these offices have had difficulty staffing at appropriate levels to meet demand for activities such as patenting and licensing, much less market research, mentoring, and other early-stage entrepreneurial needs.
 
“There are a number of ideas [at universities] that aren’t necessarily high-potential ideas, but they’re good ideas,” Harrington said. “They’re just not super homeruns. Those might not find a home in tech transfer, but some of them, if worked, might turn into better opportunities than people envisioned. If you’re really going to change the culture, you don’t want to turn anyone away, but tech transfer only has so much capacity. You can’t be expected to serve everybody at an optimal level.”
 
Harrington said that IAP seeks to hire “career-transitioning” postdocs with a science background that are also interested in learning business. The preferred science backgrounds of postdoc candidates will be based on a list of targeted technologies that Harrington and colleagues have identified based on a 10-year inventory of all government grants in Missouri.
 
The initial list of targeted technologies at St. Louis-area institutes include nanotechnology, molecular imaging and biomarkers, imaging and radiology, plant research, genomics, bioenergy, advanced communications, virology, applied engineering, polymers, cancer differentiation and targeted therapies, neurodegenerative disease, interventional cardiology, and electrophysiology.
 
The Columbia-area target technologies include nanotechnology, disease management technologies, health management, organ design and xenotransplants, veterinary genomics and cloning, biofuel, and plant science and plant genomics.
 
Once a technology has been found to have commercial potential, the team will hand it off to the appropriate university’s tech-transfer office, where it will be business as usual.
 
The postdocs will also work with a number of area corporate and not-for-profit partners to provide resources to would-be entrepreneurs. These partners, in addition to the universities mentioned earlier, include St. Louis Arch Angels, the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, Prolog Ventures, Lopata Flegel & Company, Pfizer, the Missouri Venture Forum, Rivervest, Biogenerator, the Kauffman Foundation, the St. Louis County Economic Council, and the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.
 
Harrington said that representatives from each of these entities will also likely serve on an advisory board that will help guide the project. In addition, the IPA program has a five-year plan but only two years of NSF funding, so Harrington hopes that some of these partners or potential future partners will be willing to privately fund the program beyond 2009.
 

“If you’re really going to change the culture, you don’t want to turn anyone away, but tech transfer only has so much capacity. You can’t be expected to serve everybody at an optimal level.”

Brian Clevinger, one of three managing directors at life sciences VC firm and project partner Prolog Ventures, said that it was “natural” for his firm to partner on IAP because it already had working relationships in place with all the area universities, and in particular Washington University.
Clevinger told BTW that the partner institutions will be able to advise the project in particular areas of expertise. “The thing that’s most important about our participation from the [NSF’s] standpoint is that there will be somebody there that can possibly fund these projects as they come out. The whole purpose of the grant or partnership is to create new companies, and that’s the business we’re in.”
 
He added that Prolog got behind the idea because “at every tech-transfer office in the world, including the Stanfords and the MITs and others with really great track records – the value of having these kinds of relationships is always high.”
 
Prolog also has a vested interest in the project, he said, because as a VC firm that participates primarily in Series A rounds, it prefers to do deals on its home turf.
 
“A friend of mine said we’re like ripe tomatoes – we don’t travel well,” Clevinger joked. “But especially for us Series A folks, we’d much rather do things close to home, because we do add value to our companies. We serve on the boards. Our group has operating experience, so we can help new or even existing CEOs make decisions. We like to do deals here in St. Louis, and anything we can do to increase the number of potential candidates is something we obviously should do.”
 
Similarly, the St. Louis Arch Angels, an angel network that invests in early-stage companies with high growth potential in the St. Louis region, became involved with the project through personal connections with Harrington and the participating universities, Gilbert Bickel, chairman of the group, told BTW.
 
Bickel said that the postdocs that are hired for the IAP are expected to possess specific knowledge of a given field that tech-transfer offices might not have.
 
“The people in the tech-transfer office are fabulous in terms of finding out where an application is,” Bickel said. “But I think by hiring people in biometrics, medicine, statistics – any area where they have a vision for a potential commercial technology that perhaps the universities may see but don’t know what to do with – those people are like instigators [to turn] an exciting line of research into something commercial.”
 
Bickel added that although Arch Angels is not in the business of providing capital to general programs such as the IAP, it may choose to down the road if the project leads to early success, which would be primarily characterized by an increase in the number of university spinouts based on ideas that were nurtured through the program.
 
Funding for IAP was made through the NSF’s Partnerships for Innovation program, which is designed to fund projects that promote regional innovation and economic development in the US. The program made 15 awards last year, including the Washington University award, totaling about $8 million.
 
In the area of university technology transfer, other notable Partnerships for Innovation awards last year included a three-year, $430,000 grant to the University of Oregon and partners to support the Oregon Technology Entrepreneurship Consortium; a three-year, $600,000 grant to the University of Virginia and others for a project entitled “Creating a Sustainable Network for Bioengineering Innovation and Translational Research;” and a three-year, $600,000 grant to the University of Texas at Austin to support the Integrated Technology Innovation and Commercialization program (see BTW, 3/26/2007).

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