By Eric Swedlund
The University of Arizona is transforming the way new discoveries and inventions are commercialized – and leading the effort is the man who accomplished the same feat in Colorado.
David N. Allen is the inaugural executive director of Tech Launch Arizona, a center formed with the mission to move the university’s admittedly poor performance in technology transfer to be among the best in the country.
“All universities in the U.S. have tech commercialization operations – and our objective is to build one of the best,” said Allen. “But it’s not going to be defined necessarily that way. It’s going to be defined by the amount of engagement that we have with faculty. If we have the right kind of engagement with the faculty and the right kind of engagement with the community, we will get to the outcomes that are important.”
At the University of Colorado, Allen led a Technology Transfer Office that received 2,120 invention disclosures, filed 1,420 patents and executed 325 exclusive licenses and options over the past 10 years. During this period, 93 companies have been started based on UC intellectual property.
In the same time, the University of Arizona spun out just 48 companies.
“I think everybody felt the university could be doing more spin-out activity,” said Leonard M. Jessup, dean of the UA Eller College of Management. “It was just a missed opportunity here – given the scale and scope of funded research that goes on year in and year out.”
Jessup chaired the search committee that selected Allen and also chairs the Tech Launch Arizona advisory board. He said he has high hopes for this new era of technology transfer at the UA – one that can help boost the Tucson region’s effort to develop a more innovation-based economy.
“We have one of the best and biggest innovation engines in the country right here in Tucson and a pretty good environment for businesses to launch and grow,” he said.
“This is a good opportunity and a perfect time for it to happen.” Tech Launch Arizona was developed “at a time when the university and the City of Tucson and the State of Arizona needed it most – during the downturn. It was a way to help not only the university, but the region, by putting more companies based on science and engineering out into the community,” he said. “Everybody knew that it could happen.”
Jessup said that during the search, the committee considered candidates from universities as well as the private sector, but from the outset valued the type of experience Allen had at Colorado and his work in technology development and commercialization at Ohio State University and Ohio University before that.
“One of many attractive things about David was that he had come to Colorado a decade ago when they were at about the same position we are in now, and over that decade, had built out some very respectable revenues. More to the point – of the companies that had been created over that time, many stuck in that corridor between Denver and Boulder,” Jessup said.
“Many of us saw that outcome that he’d already achieved and thought if we could look back 10 years from now and see the same thing happen here, it would be a success.”
Tech Launch Arizona was established in November of 2011 to consolidate efforts around moving knowledge and inventions to market. Allen came on board in September of 2012. The first awards to faculty with promising inventions and discoveries were announced November 2012.
In February Doug Hockstad was named director of the revitalized Office of Technology Transfer after serving 11 years as associate director of software and engineering licensing at the University of Michigan’s Office of Technology Transfer.
Allen said UM is an excellent example of a university that did a total turnaround in technology transfer. “Doug was a high-level participant there from the beginning,” he said.
Technology transfer at the UA can only improve if it happens “more deliberately, more predictably and more effectively,” said Sherry Hoskinson, director of commercialization networks and operations for Tech Launch Arizona and former director of the UA McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship.
“Although the University of Arizona has a very rich and robust history and reputation in research and scientific discovery, and presumably technological innovation, it has been institutionally less focused on how to actually bring that innovation to the marketplace,” she said. “TLA is the coming of age of a growing and changing thought process for a very big and complex institution to shift and reprioritize so those things can actually happen.”
TLA’s effectiveness will depend largely on whether the faculty sees this shift as a beneficial service rather than a mandate.
“The incentives, measures and metrics for faculty have not been targeted toward commercializing and licensing type activities,” Hoskinson said. “They’ve been focused on the academic value of their work. It’s not like a company where the employees follow the company’s new vision. It’s important that this is not clubbing faculty members over the head and dragging them to the commercialization table – but making it so that it fits and advances the values that are important to them.”
Since he arrived in early September, Allen has met widely with faculty as well as members of the business community in Tucson, listening to what they need as much as informing them about TLA.
“Faculty want impact from their work,” Allen said. “Today that usually means publication and their work with students. Going ahead, impact will mean people using their products and services in the marketplace.
“The epitome of this is a doctor who has been working in a clinical environmental and created an intervention for a disease through a drug that is now the standard of care. It’s hard to believe there’s anything more rewarding than that,” he said.
“That same analogy can play itself out over all kinds of different environments across the university – whether it’s environmental impact or social impact or just improving the quality of life.”
Hoskinson said she’s gratified by reactions from both faculty members and entrepreneurs in Tucson who are already supporting Allen’s leadership and the TLA’s goals.
“The process of pursing patents and a commercial outcome for their work is ambiguous at best. It can be intimidating – and they’d rather focus on what they know how to do very well. It’s a distraction at best – and that’s if they’ve had neutral or good experience in the past,” she said.
“He took away the gray cloud for people in a very few short weeks. I’ve been able to connect with faculty since there’s been a Tech Launch Arizona and they feel really good about this. They’re more in the game and more willing to have their work looked at and explored for commercial opportunities. There’s clarity and confidence and they’re more interested in being a part of the discussion.”
TLA is structured to remove the limitations that had hampered the university’s tech transfer efforts in the past.
“For the most part, rich and very effective commercialization and licensing outcomes haven’t necessarily been the job of any one person or area,” Hoskinson said. “The Office of Technology Transfer, as it was formed under a very research-intensive environment, was never quite positioned to do what it needed to do. It was more licensing and an IP manager. So other areas of the university reached out and tried to connect to one another to create more of a supply chain – but it really was an add on to what most people did. Access and authority to make those things happen was really based on what different units could patch together.”
Now these activities are centralized. One goal is to position TLA as a continuation of the research process – not as independent or different from the research process.
“It can exist in addition to, not instead of,” Allen said. “What we want is for the Tech Launch Arizona strategic plan to be woven into the fabric of the university’s strategic plan – so it has continuity and can build as the university builds.”
Tech Launch Arizona won’t be creating a cookie-cutter format for commercialization, but working on a case-by-case basis, tailoring what his office can offer specifically to each individual.
“Faculty are the inventors, the creators of these new technologies. They’ve worked at the bench for decades in a very competitive environment and if it’s going to move forward they have to be a participant. We cannot divorce them from their ideas if we’re going to take even step one. It’s all about service to those faculty,” Allen said.
From the first discussions with professors through the patent process to proof-of-concept grants and an evaluation of the market potential to securing outside investment, Allen said TLA will bring in “more than 50 elements of change” from the current structure, with new policies, procedures and improved relationships.
“We want to open up this black box and be very transparent about the process – the inputs and outcomes – and really give people an opportunity to make decisions about how much they want to participate,” he said.
For example, Allen said, “If we go to the patent literature and find that the idea is already patented, then we can say ‘how can your work be different from this work?’ We don’t want to be turning people off who have a lot of energy. We want to work with them to channel that energy in ways that create novel products and services that can be patented and receive significant investment dollars.”
Allen cautions against expecting results too soon. New technologies typically take a minimum of four years before they appear as a product, needing investment of at least a couple million dollars. For high-impact products like new pharmaceutical drugs, that development phase can stretch to more than a decade and require hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Getting that patent right with defensible claims that are broad enough to cover what we want to create as a product is absolutely essential. We’re going to make some major changes in the way we do that kind of work. We’re going to be much more engaged with patent attorneys earlier in the process and continuing through the process,” Allen said.
“We’re going to be leaning forward and putting a lot more technology in play because we have the resources that hadn’t been heretofore available.”
Ann Weaver Hart, who began her UA presidency a little over two months before Allen started, said Tech Launch Arizona has a difficult task – but one that is essential to the university.
“The future for great universities like the University of Arizona is going to be increasingly interdependent with the application of the knowledge that is generated here to human existence and life,” she said.
“Different people are really good at different things. We will need as an institution to be more open to many ways of doing things, embracing the entrepreneurial spirit that is exemplified by someone who sees a great idea and immediately starts thinking about what to do with it – a really great combination of knowledge and life. Tech Launch is huge
19 UA Projects
Nineteen University of Arizona research projects received inaugural awards from Tech Launch Arizona to help move promising inventions and discoveries closer to commercialization. The awards ranged from $10,000 to $40,000 and total more than $700,000.
The Proof of Concept awards help address the technological and commercial hurdles faced when bringing a new concept to market. “This money often means the difference between a promising technology with important social benefits moving closer to commercialization – or being shelved,” said David N. Allen, TLA executive director. “This money is generally very difficult to access. This is an important investment.”
There were 46 applications submitted representing a wide spectrum of research in engineering, optical sciences, biotechoogy, medicine and other disciplines. Many were collaborations. In all, 33 UA departments were represented.
“Every proposal had significant merit,” said Sherry Hoskinson, TLA director of commercialization networks and operations.
After TLA staff review, selected principal investigators presented their proposals to an external review panel of 14 who contributed their expertise and insights – not just to rate the proposals for funding, but to help achieve a deeper understanding of the potential of these technologies.
TLA will continue to work with all these applicant researchers to develop and advance their inventions – whether funding was received in this round or not, Hoskinson said.
UA Technology Transfer Statistics FY 2003 – FY 2012
Invention Disclosures – 1,156
U.S. Patent Applications – 1,143
U.S. Patents Issued – 148
Licenses/Options – 415
Startup Companies – 48
Royalty Income – $10,140,180
Source: Tech Launch Arizona