ISU had 47 patent applications filed in fiscal 2011, up 21 over 2010.
Technology transfer is big business.
2009, for example, was admittedly a difficult year for tech transfers in the United States, and licensing income dropped, according to MedCity News in citing an Association of University Technology Managers survey.
But the 181 tech transfer programs that responded to the survey — the association’s most recent — still claimed a combined $2.3 billion in income.
So in a nation increasingly obsessed with the need for innovation, tech transfer from university research labs into commercial products and services is on the front burner.
Iowa’s three Board of Regents universities help their faculty members obtain patents and sell or license those patents to companies. The activities generate big revenue streams for at least two of the universities — Iowa State University and the University of Iowa.
The universities also help their faculty and staff-related companies obtain state and federal grants for research and development, and provide them with economical lab or office space near campus.
The importance of tech transfer was highlighted during the recent selection of Iowa State University’s new president, Steven Leath, who takes office next month.
Regents President Craig Lang said Leath’s experience with research and technology transfer at the University of North Carolina “will be an invaluable resource in leading Iowa State and its many contributions to the state of Iowa, particularly for Iowa’s bioeconomy industry.”
At the University of Iowa, interest is heightened by the impending retirement of Jordan Cohen as vice president of research and economic development. UI has begun searching for the replacement of Cohen, the former Dean of the UI College of Pharmacy.
More technology commercialization at UI could mean more companies such as VIDA Diagnostics and Terpenoid Therapeutics, which spun out of research surrounding the UI’s College of Medicine and hospital.
VIDA Diagnostics was founded by four UI faculty who used an interdisciplinary approach to develop software that uses computer simulation and quantitative analysis of data from CT scans to assess the progress of cardiopulmonary diseases and recommend treatments.
The founders had a patent portfolio managed by the University of Iowa Research Foundation that provided the basis for its first Series A private funding round in 2007, VIDA Diagnostics CEO Susan Wood said.
The UI also was instrumental in conducting validation studies that made the technology commercially viable and provides economic office space at the UI BioVentures Center, she added.
Since its founding in 2004, the company has grown to 11 full-time and six cyclical employees. It introduced its second product, Apollo, last year.
Cancer drug developer Terpenoid Therapeutics was founded in 2005 when two UI faculty members joined with two former students to develop small-molecule cancer drugs for prostate cancer and brain tumors.
The founding faculty members — Raymond Hohl of the University of Iowa College of Medicine and Jeffrey Neighbors of the Department of Chemistry — previously had disclosed their discoveries to the University of Iowa Research Foundation, but had to form a company to apply for grants to further development.
“We had some really great potential products in cancer therapy and were looking to advance them past the discovery stage into development,” Hohl said.
In technology commercialization, securing money and intellectual property are key. UI helped Terpenoid and VIDA with both.
The benefits to the universities of helping commercialize discoveries are clear, according to Zev Sunleaf, interim president of the UI Research Foundation.
If a UI discovery is commercialized, funds are used to recover patent costs and the first $100,000 goes to the inventors. After that, Sunleaf said:
— 25 percent goes to the inventors
— 15 percent goes to their academic department
— 15 percent goes to their college
— 20 percent goes to the UI Office of the Vice President for Research
— 25 percent goes to the UI Research Foundation, where it helps recover patent costs for discoveries that are not licensed and commercialized.
Drug research exemplifies the kind of expenses that require university help obtaining grants and private investment.
“You can get it to work in a mouse model, but it’s going to take $800 million to take and run with,” Sunleaf said.
As a doctor specializing in unusual and advanced cancers, Hohl struggled with prescribing costly drugs that he feared might bankrupt patients. With Terpenoid Therapeutics, he suddenly had his own window on the costs of drug development.
Hohl said one thing the UI Research Foundation did that really helped Terpenoid Therapeutics was to bring in an outside consultant to assess the patentability of the company’s potential intellectual property and help the company’s founders transform abstract notions into tangible product ideas.
All the UI assistance to a private company could be a sensitive issue to taxpayers, Hohl said, but it is critical for the technology to be commercialized and the state to reap economic benefits. As faculty members, Hohl and Neighbors would not have the time other entrepreneurs might to set up a company.
Just researching and filing for patent protection can cost from $10,000 to $100,000 for a discovery, Sunleaf explained.
ISU historically has eclipsed all other Iowa universities in tech commercialization.
That’s largely because ISU’s research strengths in plant genetics and engineering play to Iowa’s economic strengths in agriculture and manufacturing, explained Randy Pilkington, executive director of business and community services at the University of Northern Iowa.
“It’s more based toward what can happen in Iowa,” Pilkington said.
Pilkington said UI is improving, but “Iowa State has a long history. ISU is a renowned agricultural and engineering college.”
ISU also has the benefit of close research ties to two major federal laboratories, according to Sharon Quisenberry, ISU’s vice president of regional and economic development for the past three years.
Ames is home to the Ames National Laboratory of the Department of Energy and the National Animal Disease Center of the USDA. Its status as Iowa’s land grant university also gave it more of a mission to work in economic development and regional service, Quisenberry said.
Even in the fragile economy of the past three years in which Quisenberry has been at ISU, she said the university has increased its research efforts and technology transfer. ISU had 47 patent applications filed in fiscal 2011, up 21 over 2010.
License agreements and options decreased to 49 from 97 in fiscal 2010, however.
UI restructured its economic development and technology commercialization efforts about six years ago under a new structure called the UI Centers for Enterprise. The centers include the UI Research Foundation, Vice President for Research, John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, Small Business Development Center and two incubators for small companies — the Technology Innovation Center for those without lab needs and BioVentures Center for companies needing laboratories.
UI’s Cohen said the new organization allows the university to be more agile and responsive to commercialization opportunities.
“It also helps us figure out what people do in this area, where to call and who to get answers from,” Cohen said. “We’re trying to focus the public’s attention on where this all gets done.”
One change being planned is the creation of a concierge position within UI, Cohen said. As with a hotel concierge, the staff member will direct faculty or staff members with discoveries to the proper resources and assist them in exploring commercialization.
UNI is less involved in technology transfer than UI or ISU because of the drastically smaller amount of research done at UNI, Pilkington said. Its biggest accomplishments have been in bio-based lubricants and biobased binders for the metal castings industry.
“You’ll see more companies spun out of our (small business) incubator than out of our technologies,” Pilkington said.
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