InnovFest 2014: Translating Research Into Products

A recent Singapore-based Asian tech rendezvous saw the exchange of ideas the commercialization of university research.

AsianScientist (Apr. 29, 2014) – Forty years ago, US senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole collaborated on a bill to grant patent rights to non-governmental organizations. They had hoped to address the 1970s economic malaise, which saw some 25,000 government-sponsored research patents fail to obtain commercial licenses.

The bill – now known as the Bayh-Dole Act – was eventually adopted in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, thereby allowing institutions such as universities to pursue ownership of their own research and inventions. This paradigm shift was to lay the foundation for many of the “technology transfer” models that US universities and their international counterparts continue to pursue till this day.

From April 14 to 16, the National University of Singapore (NUS) held its 8th annual InnovFest, a convention organized by the university technology transfer office – NUS Enterprise – that explores the theme of “Asian Innovations Going Global.” This year, some 700 technopreneurs, scientists and businesspeople came together to share, exchange and learn about strategies and ideas on translating research and technology into commercially sustainable products and services.

Asian Scientist Magazine sat in one of the panel discussions, Translating Technologies From Research, which featured Jane Muir, president of the Association of University Technology Managers in the US; Dr. Kevin Cullen, CEO of NewSouth Innovations in Australia, and Dr. Cyrus Shahabi, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Southern California in the US. The informative discussion highlighted the complex nature of technology transfer, emphasizing the importance of effective management and vision in helping industrial spinoffs succeed.

Jane Muir at InnovFest 2014.
Jane Muir at InnovFest 2014.

Muir set the ball rolling, sharing about the rise of different approaches in bringing technologies closer to productization.

“(There are) a couple of older approaches – but they are evolving. Among these are commercialization funds, university-led startups and small business innovation research grants. The newer and evolving approaches include our matching grants program, something called crowd funding which many of you have heard about, and a big emphasis on pre-arranged sponsored research agreements to bring those research discoveries into the market,” says Muir.

She noted the increasing prevalence and importance of “entrepreneurs-in-residence,” or successful technopreneurs, in lending a strong hand at driving university research and innovation to differentiate themselves and succeed in the commercial world. As Muir pointed out, the increasingly cut-throat competition faced by technopreneurs has also resulted in many university-backed startups going “pre-CEO,” that is to say without a CEO, so as to allow validation of their product’s success before actualizing their corporate identity.

First-hand experience

If studying university technology transfer models is complicated, then perhaps equally nerve-racking is personally experiencing and witnessing the technology transfer process. This was the subject of Shahabi’s talk, in which he fascinated the audience with some of the products developed in his research lab at the University of Southern California.

“The good news is that the technology that usually comes of out universities are very strong in IP (intellectual property), so we already have a good number of patents on the list. The bad news is that we are not good at coming up with the right business model,” quips Shahabi.

To illustrate his point, Shahabi highlighted a project called Geosemble where he played a significant role as researcher and adviser. Initially analyzing data provided by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Agency for management purposes, his team realized the power of the data in providing a multitude of useful information.

“We realized at the end that we could predict things using the data. We can predict how the accidents impact traffic, we can predict how the traffic changes. So even though the data (management) itself was all the agency cared about, for us the data became a rich source for a lot of knowledge,” Shahabi shares.

Together with his PhD student, Shahabi subsequently developed a software application that helped drivers in Los Angeles avoid traffic jams, leading to improved traffic flow in the city. After going through government funding, administration and legal procedures, their product was eventually acquired by geospatial intelligence solutions company Terrago in 2012.

The fundamental role of universities

The last speaker was Cullen, whose career in the technology transfer industry spans over twenty years and many countries across Europe, the US and Australia. For Cullen, achieving successful technology transfer requires a fundamental approach.

“Knowledge is created through the research process. Knowledge is disseminated principally through publication, typically to other researchers, so they can do something useful with it. Knowledge is disseminated to the teacher, to the student, so they can do something useful with it. I argue that tech transfer is simply another mechanism by which we disseminate knowledge, this time through companies, through entrepreneurs, so they can do something useful with it,” says Cullen.

With this in mind, he shares his model for intellectual property, which proposes tying only the top research-derived IPs up with commercial partners, while giving away the rest of research-derived products or IPs away for free.

Aware that his approach may sound anti-commercial or outlandish, Cullen nonetheless stands by his philosophy and solutions for technology transfer.

“What is technology transfer for? I have come to the conclusion that the answer is to help the university to achieve its mission; to create knowledge and to disseminate knowledge.”


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Alan Aw is a maths enthusiast who likes sharing the fun and beauty of science with others. Besides reading, he enjoys running, badminton, and listening to (and occasionally playing) Bach or Zez Confrey.

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