OTC News Archive

UT tries a new approach to turning its research into companies

Kirk Ladendorf, Austin American-Statesman
November 15, 2008

The University of Texas is creating a new entrepreneur-in-residence program, in which experienced startup executives will scour the school’s wealth of research discoveries to find breakthroughs that could become companies.

Before the end of the year, UT expects to hire two or three executives for six-month stints in the program. The goal is to accelerate the school’s ability to turn its research into startups and generate more licensing revenue.

The executives, who will be paid $5,500 a month, will be charged with identifying opportunities and developing business plans around those with the most promise.

If a plan wins preliminary approval from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, they will be paid a $25,000 bonus.

“We will be the first university in the country doing it this way,” said Neil Iscoe, director of UT’s Office of Technology Commercialization, who developed the idea. “We have invited the entrepreneurs inside our tent, so they can be inside our system and then take things outside.”

UT will unveil the new program formally next week at its technology investment conference, called “Ready to Commercialize.” But word already has leaked out among local startup investors and executives, and Iscoe says it is attracting considerable interest.

Jimmy Treybig, an Austin-based venture partner with New Enterprise Associates, says the concept makes sense in areas such as alternative energy, where a laboratory breakthrough is almost a prerequisite for starting a new company.

“The (executive) can go over there, get some money, look around, spend some time with researchers to figure things out from a business point of view. I have several guys that I have talked with and said, ‘You want to go do that deal,'” Treybig said.

The program makes particularly good sense for startup executives who are between companies and are looking for their next interesting opportunity, he said.

“Finding a significant idea is not easy,” Treybig said, adding that a major research university such as UT is a good place to look.

Clint Bybee, managing director for ARCH Venture Partners, calls the program “a great thing to do. The idea is to have a business-minded person that is looking at technology, finding leading researchers, and bringing the perspective of the marketplace to bear on research ideas and finding out where the pony is.”

Bybee’s firm has backed two startup companies based on UT-invented technology.

“Neil believes there is more to be done, and he just needs the entrepreneurs on the ground digging through things to make that happen,” he said. “I have introduced Neil to a couple of people already that I think would be good for it.”

The program is a sort of valedictory for Iscoe, who has headed UT’s tech commercialization office for five years and will be leaving the job once a replacement is found. During Iscoe’s tenure, UT’s patent licensing revenue has tripled to $11.5 million in the just-completed 2008 fiscal year. UT now owns part of 36 technology startups, including 10 created in the past year.

UT has a wealth of discoveries to choose from: It holds almost 4,000 patents, which represent about 1,500 technology discoveries. UT is among the leading research schools in the country with nearly $500 million in funded research last year and more than 60 percent of its work funded by various federal agencies.

Among the promising young companies with UT roots is Austin’s Molecular Imprints Inc., which develops and builds precision lithography equipment for use by chipmakers and manufacturers of computer hard drives.

Executives said earlier this year that Molecular Imprints could be ready for a public stock offering in 2009.