CIV’s community director, Dr. Vladi Dvoyris, interviewed Natan Chetrit, Business Technology Development Associate, and Matt Gardner, Business Development Manager, at the University of Utah’s Technology & Venture Commercialization (TVC) Office. We have already discussed Utah’s creation of a university venture oasis in an article by Norris Krueger (see CVR Issue 4), and now the time has come to follow-up on their efforts.
Please tell us about the activity of the Technology Commercialization office, and its role relative to the innovation ecosystem in the university.
We manage the portfolio of technologies that researchers generate, and take them from initial intake all the way to licensing or spinoff into a startup. By handling the business development and the commercialization, we free faculty to pursue their passion, which is the research they’re doing; yet we keep them involved in the process because their engagement is invaluable to its success.
We support all departments in the university – the school of engineering, the sciences, even the arts and music and the university hospital.
We get 150-250 disclosures a year. Each of these is assigned to a portfolio manager like Natan. The portfolio manager is assisted by Matt’s team, which is part of the economic development venture group; they do the vetting process, analyzing the IP angle and the competitive landscape, and if the idea is compelling they take it through a “de-risking” program until it can be made into a start-up. On average we produce some 15 start-ups a year.
What is the “secret sauce” of your activity? How do you achieve these results?
It comes down to a culture that was built before our time. Entrepreneurship runs deep in the faculty at Utah; researchers find it interesting and compelling. This culture originated some twenty years ago, and is in fact a marketing tool we use to get great faculty to join the university.
The university is very focused on impact, and we talk to faculty and explain the advantages of working with us – publication is great, but ultimately the goal is to get their technology into the hands of the public.
We succeed in generating startups by asking hard questions from the get-go, talking to people in industry and end users to make sure that what we’re working in is what they want, and building relationships with diverse stakeholders that can help get the technology to market.
Do you actively approach researchers on campus, or do you wait for them to come to you?
We do actively reach out to them. We find that the relationship building is valuable. Reminding the researchers that we’re there and that we’re constantly adding services that can benefit them, whether it’s new funding mechanisms, or the initial evaluation we do that can help them avoid reinventing the wheel. We do have outreach, we hold multiple events throughout the year and are constantly striving to be supportive in any way we can.
We want to differentiate between a high quality disclosure and just a disclosure; We’ve set up a program where if we identify problems that exist within industry, we can provide grants to faculty members to generate solutions of high quality. Tech transfer is famously about solutions looking for problems, and we’re trying to flip that on its head and get solutions to the problems we know exist.
Do these grants come from non-profit organizations, or are venture capitalists also involved? Where do you get the money?
They come from our office internally. We have the University of Utah Research Foundation (UURF), which funnels our returned earnings – the money we make on out licenses – back to the faculty members.
How do you help the companies that you establish after they are launched – do you help them thrive later on or do you just let them go?
Man, you’ve just hit our Achilles heel! Back in the 80s and 90s we were a traditional TTO and were measured on how many licenses we secured. Then in the late 90s the money was in the startups, so we were measured on how many start-ups we’d create. That model didn’t work well: we created many start-ups but they had a very low success rate. We switched model recently and started to investigate why they fail, and found that it is for the basic issues related to starting a business. We identified two issues: (1) They were not solving a problem people truly cared about; and (2) The team was not structured correctly. So now our metrics are based on specific milestones. Before we invest we want to understand the problem, the economic buyer, the end users, etc.
As to the startups that do exist, we allocate resources – our analysts can contribute market research and seek potential partners, we have a funding accelerator program that coaches and puts the startup in front of investors, we have an individual that focuses on grants and advises the startups about these.
Our structure is unique in that we can allocate discretionary funds. We get enough money so that if we find a technology that we consider promising, we can invest our money in it. This has strings attached – the researcher needs to have a clarity about their product and market, and pitch it to a multidisciplinary committee that adds its feedback and improves our decision making.
What disciplines are the most successful in venture commercialization in Utah? Where do most start-ups come from?
Our Engineering department is strong, but we also have an incredibly strong presence in the Life Sciences. This is because we have people that are in industry, and they share problems they have there – so the disclosures we see are grounded in the reality of industry. The majority of our revenue comes from the Life Sciences.
All too often when a biomedical researcher pitches an idea, non-academic investors don’t understand it. Early stage ideas then run into the so called “Valley of Death” and most do not survive. How do you address that?
When we understand that the technology has merit and a potential to succeed, but is short on funding, we have a “Gap Analysis” committee meeting. This committee has two elements: one clarifies the value of the technology itself, and the other looks at the investor community.
For example, we have a technology that is hitting a roadblock with the local investor community in Salt Lake City; so we are now seeking relevant angel investor group that may get involved; we are looking at their investment policies, and if it is to only invest locally, we might have to move the technology to San Francisco or Boston, so it can get funded and progress.
We’re constantly expanding our existing relationships and making new ones, increasing our network by talking to stakeholders outside the university. Over the past few years Utah has blossomed and attracted some top notch researchers that bring with them their own network relationships.
The Valley of Death runs deep; our ability to invest money in crucial to our success rate as we can inject funds at the right moments. This is important in Utah, where we have a growing venture community but the availability of funds is somewhat limited.
When you take the technology elsewhere, outside, aren’t you afraid to create a certain brain drain as innovators may leave you to go to industry?
We never looked at that as a bad thing. We see ourselves as service providers to faculty. If a faculty member tells us they’re passionate about their innovation and want to go with it to a start-up, we’re here to serve that faculty member.
Researchers actually move to the University of Utah from MIT because of its commercialization capability. There’s always a risk someone will move on, but as long as we’re doing a good job, that is unlikely to happen a lot. Especially as our university is growing and its reputation has been trending up in recent years.
What is the most crucial tip you would give to someone wishing to start a Tech Transfer Office in their university?
It comes down to the basic fundamental structure. Create a metric around quality disclosures. Get a buy-in from the university to provide some sort of funding to pump into those disclosures. These two are the most fundamental things. If you can create a way to engage industry to disclose their problems, and put funds into having faculty solve these problems, and then be able to have a carrot of funding to move this forward, those are the fundamental building blocks of a smart, well run TTO.
And then – Educate, Educate, Educate – Network, Network, Network! Educate yourself on best practices, and educate faculty, who may be over-eager to get a patent when this may not make sense. The networking component is because you can’t do it all on your own, you need to have skilled, experienced entrepreneurs come in and partner with you to get things moving.