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Oct. 7, 2010 Volume 31, No. 7

From lab to market


MU’s commercialization strategy is paying off

Seven years ago this month, a panel of experts from the Association for the Advancement of Science published a report on the University of Missouri’s ability to bring new faculty inventions to the marketplace.

Called “Turning the Corner,” the report noted that many MU researchers did not know where to turn when they had an idea that could lead to a new product or business.

What a difference a few years can make. By every measure, MU’s technology transfer operation has improved dramatically. In 2009, the university’s Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations, or OTMIR, processed 106 invention disclosures — four times as many as in 2004. Patent applications filed in the United States increased from 40 to 70. And the number of licensing agreements reached with businesses in the private sector tripled, leading to more than $10 million in revenue — a 300 percent increase since 2004.

Chris Fender, director of OTMIR, said the numbers reflect a better-organized and more aggressive approach to turning research dollars into commercial opportunities.

“We’ve learned a lot as an organization over the last several years,” he said. “We feel like we’re maturing to a degree that allows us to be more effective and more efficient at what we do.”

One sign of that new maturity is on display today at the Bond Life Sciences Center. The first Missouri Technology Expo is a daylong showcase of intellectual property developed by UM researchers. The expo, which Fender hopes will become an annual event, is co-sponsored by Regional Economic Development Inc., or REDI, whose goal is to encourage entrepreneurs to create businesses and jobs in mid-Missouri.

REDI President Mike Brooks said the tech expo is an opportunity to unite ideas developed in the university’s research facilities with private companies and investors. “The ultimate objective for the university is to bring in revenue from these discoveries,” he said. “If we can commercialize that technology here, as a business, we’ll have the added benefit of economic development and job creation.”

The job of OTMIR is to identify new discoveries while they’re still in the laboratory, then work with researchers to develop strategies to bring them to the marketplace. To speed up that process, OTMIR has added five licensing associates to work closely with faculty in three specific areas — health sciences, engineering and life sciences. Their job is to determine whether the university needs to seek patent protection for a discovery, as well as to make sure the researcher is in compliance with federal funding requirements. Or, in the case of research that is privately funded, identify other companies or investors that may have a claim to any future licensing revenue.

If OTMIR’s analysis finds a discovery’s chances of success are good, associates will begin working with the researcher to identify companies that might be interested in licensing the technology.

Fender said OTMIR’s goal is to develop a strategy for licensing an invention within 90 days of disclosure, if not sooner. That’s not always easy. Knowledge in the lab doesn’t always translate to knowledge of the marketplace, he said.

“We’re trying to help people who have not worked outside of academia to understand that, ‘OK, these are the factors that are driving the decision companies make,’” he said. “The best technology doesn’t always win. It’s what [companies] can sell, what they can make money off of.”

Jimi Cook admits that when he applied for a patent for his first invention — a prosthetic elbow for canines — he knew little about how to move it from his lab to the market. Today, Cook, professor of veterinary medicine and surgery and director of MU’s Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory, has several devices and procedures in the patent pipeline, and two of them are already in the process of being licensed.

“It was such a new thing when we started out,” he said. “I don’t think they had the players in place or the focus. But it’s really improved. Now, it’s step one, step two, step three, and Chris’s office is being very proactive with companies.”

For Cook, whose grandfather was one of the first patients in the U.S. to have knee replacement surgery, technology transfer is about much more than the recognition that results from breaking new therapeutic or clinical ground. In the end, he said, it’s about helping patients — canine and human — to lead more mobile, pain-free lives. 

“You can have the best idea in the world, but unless you can get it out to the patients . . . ,” Cook said. “We don’t want stupid things to get in the way of that.

Fender certainly agrees with that sentiment. Thirty years after Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, granting universities a financial stake in their intellectual property, researchers around the country are approaching their work with a more entrepreneurial spirit. Since UM President Gary Forsee set a goal of $50 million, it’s been in Fender’s interest for OTMIR to nurture that spirit and to make as many deals as possible.

But as a former researcher himself, Fender understands that people like Jimi Cook aren’t in it for the money. And neither is he.

“I think the reason you get into science is to help humanity, and that’s really our goal as well,” he said. “The president has mentioned some lofty goals. We have a target to shoot at. But I don’t want to be 100 percent driven by money. The fact that we have 120 or so licenses out there, that’s getting our technology out the door where somebody has a shot at making something good happen. I think that’s the real measure of success.”