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Speeding the process from lab to marketplace


May 06, 2009

Business experts stress that amassing the knowledge and performing the research necessary for technological innovation is not enough to achieve success in today’s fast-changing global economy. More critical than ever is the ability to move quickly from research and development to commercialization.

The topic was the focus of the recent forum Share the Wealth – Advancing Commercialization in the University Environment, hosted by the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. It brought together Arizona State University leaders – including President Michael Crow – research directors, entrepreneurs and chief executive officers of technology-based companies.

Crow said the challenge is to create a research environment that fosters an entrepreneurial spirit and generates ideas about how to rapidly find a marketplace for products and advances resulting from research.

The key to making it work is finding commercialization models that equitably benefit researchers, their institutions and investors, he said.

Such a process must permit faculty and students the slow “incubation time” required for thorough exploratory research but adapt to a rapid timetable at the point where research developments are ready to be transferred to product development or other marketable applications, Crow said.

That would demand universities to work on two tracks at once – to be able to patiently support basic research while at the same time seeking out the industry partners and investors to help commercialize potential research discoveries , and to think ahead about sales, marketing and distribution of new products.

Joining in the discussion moderated by engineering school Dean Deirdre Meldrum were Michael Gordon, chief executive of SkyPipes Wireless Inc., Jeff Morhet, chairman and chief executive of InNexus Biotechnology Inc., Gary Tooker, former chairman of Motorola, Alan Nelson, director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute, and Nicholas Colaneri, director of ASU’s Flexible Display Center.

The panel also included chief executive Duane Roth, who gave a presentation on his venture, CONNECT, a public benefits organization that fosters entrepreneurship and assists new businesses in the technology and life sciences sectors.

Roth emphasized that successful commercialization hinges on the ability to make science and technology part of a vision that excites people – particularly potential investors.

Another key message: It takes particular skill to manage the tension between researchers who need freedom to innovate and the need to direct researchers’ work in ways that open opportunities to monetize new discoveries.

Golden and Tooker said universities must position themselves to act as a link between government, researchers, corporate interests and venture capitalists.

Golden stressed that public universities must also take on the added task of explaining to the general public how research, technology development and commercialization fit into the university mission.

Panelists agreed the justification is provided by the public benefit of the endeavors. Generating new ideas and new technologies spurs economies, especially by creating jobs.

Researchers also must learn to think about money the way investors do – and to be realistic about market risk.

In the present economic downturn, Roth and Golden said attracting early-stage venture capital will be difficult to impossible. New investment mechanisms will be needed, they said, such as public/private financing vehicles.

Golden said all stake holders in research-to-market ventures must “recalibrate their expectations” with regard to risk/reward formulas. Despite having to reduce expectations about market success, he added, it’s necessary to increase the amount of technological innovation moving into the marketplace if the nation is to accelerate an economic recovery.

University students also need to brought into the commercialization endeavor, they said. They should be educated in the mindset of business along with developing the mindset of scientists and engineers.

Innovation and business savvy start in the same place, they said, with perceiving ways to solve problems and improve life, and students should be schooled in how to make themselves think in that direction.