Accelerating momentum

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

I recently had the great honor of speaking at the Flinn Foundation Bioscience Roadmap luncheon about the tremendous benefits that arise from the commercialization of research at our universities - known as technology transfer. (Click here for our new video on technology transfer.)

To illustrate the true impact of technology transfer and why it should matter to any of us, I shared this poignant story...

Several years ago, a young man named George decided to join some friends and go hang-gliding. At 22 years old, he was an avid adventurer, and had been hang-gliding multiple times before. But in an instant, his adventure ended in a terrible accident when his hang-glider crashed.

He spent the next year in a wheelchair and was told he would never walk again. Though he was eventually able to walk, he was in near constant pain. Finally, 10 years ago, he decided on amputation and his leg was taken just below the knee. A prosthetic improved his ability to walk.

During this time, he heard that Arizona State University Professor Thomas Sugar was looking for candidates to test a new spring-loaded robotic ankle that his team was developing.

It was serendipity.

Dr. Sugar, a wearable robotics expert, was researching innovative solutions to restore functions to disabled and severely injured individuals. George has been his steady model in refining and improving the prosthetic for comfort and function.

The research of Dr. Sugar and his team has evolved to the creation of a new company, SpringActive, and it has a ready market. It is estimated that 2,000 servicemen and women have had below-the-knee-amputations in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and every year about 110,000 of America's estimated 24 million diabetics have the same amputation.

With his SpringActive prosthetic, George, who is now an esteemed professor of biochemistry at ASU, is able to walk smoothly. He also runs marathons which comes in handy for his role as a coach of the Desert Vista High School girls' track team, ranked the top distance running team in our nation, by the way!

So, THIS is why technology transfer matters --- it can change our lives, significantly improve our health, make our communities better places to live, and spur the economy with new job creation.

Every day at our public universities, researchers are discovering and developing new procedures, technology, medicines and products that can have positive impacts on our lives and our communities.

You may be unaware that a mere 30 years ago, the federal government owned the patents on discoveries made at public research universities with federal funding. And, only a very few of these were ever licensed to industry for the benefit of the public.

That all changed in 1980 with passage of the Bayh-Dole Act which enabled universities to own and patent inventions developed under federally funded research programs.

This Act fundamentally changed the nature of our enterprise, allowing us to bring the results of our research to the marketplace more quickly. We don't just impart knowledge, we create it and our mission now includes extending the benefits of our discoveries to the public.

The board and the universities have set strategic goals increase the translation of our research work into the marketplace, primarily through the licensing of patent rights to our ideas and inventions. Key metrics include number of inventions disclosed for evaluation for further development; the number of new patent applications; the number and duration of new companies formed; and, optimizing the revenues from licensing fees, royalties and sponsored research.

As you can see here, setting higher expectations is accelerating the momentum of transferring research benefits to the marketplace.

Each university has also established technology transfer offices -- Arizona Technology Enterprises at ASU, Tech Launch Arizona at the UA, and NAU Innovations - with its own approach and all led by experts who understand both research and industry and how to match ideas and inventions to buyers in the marketplace. They are also at the forefront of statewide efforts to develop the ecosystem to support nascent business ventures. It is amazing to consider that in a four-year time period, our university research resulted in nearly 60 start-up companies, 500 patents and 1,500 patent applications!

Yet challenges still remain in maximizing our potential including:

Informing misperceptions - Many believe that tech transfer is stalled or that the universities are closed in their sharing, but just the opposite is true. We are becoming more open every day, but we do need to be faster in executing agreements; more flexible in licensing agreements and compensation; and be more industry-specific in creating agreements.

Supporting a steady growth of commercialization - We need to continually foster the culture of innovation inside the university. We must start measuring the number of inventors, not just inventions. Inventors and entrepreneurs should be recognized publicly and in the promotion and tenure review process. We will continue to grow our accelerator opportunities associated with our campuses so that our inventors can incubate their ideas and market a business concept, not just license a technology.

Taming the Wild West - Good ideas are hot commodities. We need to dedicate sufficient resources to vigorously protect university ideas and inventions from those who may try to use them without proper licensing or claim it as their own. Access to early stage financing is equally vital, as is a greater density of technology companies. A strong ecosystem/density of companies helps to create density in entrepreneurs and investors, which is good not just for our inventors, but for our state.

As we work with business and policy leaders to address these challenges and advance the real world impact of our research, we won't lose sight of what truly matters: the depth of joy a parent feels when their child emerges from disease or illness because of our research - or the simple pleasure created by a new product that lets someone walk his dog in the park - the ability to enjoy, as George Wolf would say "the everyday things that are your life".

That is the ultimate measure of our work.