The Sciences

University-Industry Partnerships Turn Research Into Reality

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionMar 9, 2011 11:00 PM

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This is a guest post composed by Jane Garrity, PhD, of NUtech Ventures, a non-profit affiliate of the University of Nebraska, as a part of the "Science: Becoming the Messenger" workshop in Lincoln, Nebraska. Just by the time you get to work in the morning, you’ve benefited from dozens of university technologies. If you’ve run a Google search, had a drink of Gatorade or vitamin D-enriched milk, or brushed your teeth with fluoride toothpaste, you’ve used a technology developed at a university and commercialized through a partnership with industry or a startup company. The second part of that process is critical because the work done at universities tends to be very early stage and needs a lot of development to become a product or service that people can actually use. Contrary to what some may think, it’s vanishingly rare for a new invention to be widely adopted just as a result of a scientist publishing a paper. For example, a researcher at the University of Nebraska may find a chemical compound that can kill cancer cells in a petri dish, but even if it is a true cure for cancer, that compound will take years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars to ever become a drug that a patient can take. The university researcher simply doesn’t have the time, resources, inclination, or specialty expertise to make that drug a reality. We have to partner with the private sector in order to do so. Partnerships can take the form of licensing agreements, in which a company gets rights to use university intellectual property so that they can develop a technology in house. A company may also choose to sponsor research in a university lab or collaborate with a university researcher. Alternatively, a professor, student, or postdoc may start their own company to develop a technology that might be too niche or cutting edge to interest big industry. Regardless of how we proceed, the biggest challenge in technology commercialization is figuring out how to get across the “valley of death.” Many university inventions are so embryonic that industrial partners may be difficult to find until more work is done. Take that anti-cancer compound. These days, a pharmaceutical company won’t even bother with it if all you know is that it works in a petri dish. “Sounds interesting, but call us back when you’ve got detailed pharmacokinetics in two animal models,” they may say. Researchers need to know what kind of data that their partners and, ultimately, their customers want to see. They also need the resources to get that data. Programs like Nebraska’s pending Business Innovation Act can help provide researchers and entrepreneurs the funding to turn a great idea into a product. What’s the benefit of supporting university technology commercialization? Well, just look at Silicon Valley. Every Google or Genentech that comes out of a university creates jobs, builds the local economy, and makes available all of those everyday innovations that have changed our lives. At NUtech Ventures, we’re trying to build that same culture here in Nebraska.

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