OTC News Archive

University of Texas pushes commercialization

Tech transfer office reports recent success

by Sandra Zaragoza, Austin Business Journal
Friday, March 21, 2008

The University of Texas’ Office of Technology Commercialization has often been criticized by some for not turning enough university research into marketable products, but officials there point out major strides recently taken.

Since 2002, the office has spun out more than 30 startups. In 2006 alone, UT Austin generated seven startups, which was more than any other Texas university.

And the office’s revenue—a key internal measuring stick—is also revealing progress. Revenue totaled $8.4 million in 2006, up from about $3.8 million in 2003.

Successes aside, Neil Iscoe, director of UT Austin’s Office of Technology Commercialization, says that the school is keenly aware that there is more progress to be made when it comes to attracting public and private funding—and business brainpower.

“Our model is to do as many deals as we can,” Iscoe says. “The high-level challenge is letting people know what’s here.”

Commercialization at universities is still a relatively nascent effort. In fact, many of the commercialization offices on campuses nationwide were only started in the 1990s as a result of the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, including UT’s office, which was founded in 1991.

Nowadays, UT Austin is working to refine the way it packages and presents ideas and inventions so that the right people—namely venture capitalists and entrepreneurs—can better identify the opportunities.

One way the office is building interest in UT’s ideas is through its Web site, which contains about 150 invention profiles [each could have multiple patents].

Those profiles are the office’s “products,” says Betsy Merrick, associate director of marketing and public relations for the office of technology transfer.

The office, which is big on matching research and patents based on the interests of companies and investors, offers Amazon.com-style search features on its Web site.

“Amazon tries to think about what their buyers would be interested in. We are actively trying to match up people,” Iscoe says.

Right now, the hottest categories piquing investors’ interest are clean energy, medical devices, enterprise software, social networking software, and nanotechnology. The office currently has 150 invention profiles in its public database at www.otc.utexas.edu.

Staffers and patent officers also travel around the country to get face time with key investors and entrepreneurs.

When it comes to networking, its annual conference held in Austin has been extremely successful, Iscoe says.

Last year’s “Ready to Commercialize” conference, held in October, drew a sellout crowd of 250-plus entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and corporations, with about 50 percent of attendees coming from outside of Texas.

As it looks to attract new investment, UT Austin is pointing to its biggest success stories—Molecular Imprints Inc., a nano-imprint lithography manufacturer, and LabNow Inc., an Austin biotech company—which have both attracted tens of millions of dollars in funding.

Grant Gibson, vice president of market development for Austin-based venture capital firm Emergent Technologies, says his company has built a business around vetting inventions and potential patents for corporate partners, as well as its own investors. The company acts as a bridge between the university and industry partners, as well as co-develops technologies.

“You would think that, as much opportunity as there is, that everyone would be [commercializing research], but it takes a pretty savvy team of business and tech people to go through tech transfer offices,” Gibson says.

Gibson says that commercialization offices as a whole are complicated entities to work with, but the UT System has made strides when it comes to clearing the road for corporate partnerships and investors.

“That’s one of the reasons we created a fund for the UT System,” Gibson says, adding that the $27 million fund, called Fund IV LP, closed last year. Local entrepreneur Red McCombs is one investor in the UT System fund.

Beyond funding, another of UT’s biggest issues is finding entrepreneurs willing to take on the commercialization projects.

“The most critical need we have is for entrepreneurs. We need people that have a successful company or that are set to work on the next company,” Iscoe says.

Those CEOs can grow an idea or product to the point where it can attract venture capital and other types of funding, he adds.

“One way to look at it is that we are planting a lot of seeds. We know that only some will grow into flowers, and it’s hard to tell which will grow. The answer is that you [support] as many as you can and let the market decide.”

[ Austin Business Journal ]