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Finding Innovation in the Rough

Monday, July 22, 2013

Universities can be great sources of new technology for your company--if you know how to navigate them.

John Chavez is always on the hunt for the next big idea. Literally. The president of theNew Mexico Angels and tax secretary to former governor Gary Johnson spends hours each month trolling the research labs of the University of New Mexico, visiting with scientists and their graduate assistants.  John knows universities are fertile ground for raw technology with potentially lucrative commercial applications.

“The goal is to find promising technology before it goes public. The best way to do that is through relationships with university researchers and the [University of New Mexico] tech transfer office,” says John. Over the last few years, he’s uncovered technologies that New Mexico Angels was able to use as the foundation of three start-ups: Lotus Leaf CoatingsSynofolia and Tryosine Pharma.

John isn’t the only entrepreneur or investor vetting university research. Venture capitalists routinely walk the labs of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. With those two universities hauling in a combined $142.9 million in licensing income in 2011, the VCs aren’t walking away empty handed.

So how does an entrepreneur gain access to the potentially fertile grounds of university research labs? Here are five suggestions:

Focus. There are 2,618 colleges and universities in the United States. An unfocused approach is a recipe for disaster. Home in on the industry that plays to your professional experience and knowledge base, and then identify universities conducting meaningful research in your area of interest. In software, Carnegie Mellon actively promotes its efforts and is easily a premier destination. If software is your target, Carnegie Mellon should be on your list.

Don’t overlook lesser-known universities. By reading journals in your field-–-cancer or optoelectronics or whatever--you can quickly identify researchers worthy of a closer look based on their published work.

Do your homework. Once you’ve identified universities and researchers of interest, do some homework. All university tech transfer offices have websites that provide basic info. Then google the researchers you’d particularly like to connect with. A growing number of scientists, such as Dr. Brian Benicewicz, a polymer chemist at the University of South Carolina, have comprehensive websites. Benicewicz’s site chronicles his career at Celanese, Ethicon and Los Alamos National Lab; describes his current research and commercial ventures; and introduces his graduate assistants—also potential sources of big ideas.

Reach out. Cultivate relationships. You could start with the university tech transfer office. These folks are paid to know what’s going on in their institutions, and more specifically, in the university’s research labs. Good universities won’t get in the way of interactions between faculty researchers and business/entrepreneurs. Some will even broker the introductions.

Don’t hesitate to reach out directly to faculty researchers. Send a friendly email inviting them to coffee. Ask to tour their lab. Ask questions and listen carefully. Just remember the first visit is about the researcher and his or her work, not about you. If you encounter resistance--university researchers are stretched very thin--see the next tip. 

Reciprocate. Relationships are a two-way street; if you want access to a researcher’s lab, you have to bring something to the party. Without acting like a know-it-all, offer university researchers insight into potential markets, offer ways to accelerate a technology’s commercialization path, and offer to make introductions to potential experts, investors or resources. This will help establish you as a welcome guest rather than an unwanted time sink.

Work it. Don’t expect to hit the mother lode on your first visit. Be prepared to spend time and shoe leather visiting tech transfer offices, walking labs and talking to researchers. Technology isn’t going to simply fall into your lap.

There are amazing technologies being developed in university labs across the country. While university tech transfer offices maintain inventories of available IP, the advantages of going straight to the source, are undeniable. Establishing old-fashioned face-to-face relationships with those generating the ideas will give you the inside track on finding that diamond in the rough. Be sincere in your interest, be willing to give advice, be consistent, and just be there! 


Julie Goonewardene: Julie K. Goonewardene is a recognized leader in technology commercialization, business formation, and public/private partnerships. She was recently elected to the Board of Trustees for the American Medical Association. She was the co-founder of Cantilever Technologies, a software company that was acquired in 2004.

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