Transferring technology

If you knew that some of the technology that will drive tomorrow’s economy was available in your backyard today, would you seek it out?

Many companies are doing just that by fostering relationships with research universities, in order to be the first informed when new inventions, technologies and innovations are discovered.

Kent State University is one local institution that is actively pursuing companies that will use the technology developed within its walls in a commercial capacity.

In the last three years, 10 start-up companies have grown out of research developed at KSU. They range in focus from liquid crystals for optical communications to medical diagnostics to information technology. Those relationships were largely facilitated by the university’s Office of Technology Transfer and Outreach Coordination, headed by Greg Wilson.

Wilson has been the director of that office since 1996, after spending 15 years in the corporate world, largely working in new product development for Abbott Laboratories. SBN Magazine spoke to him about research available to companies and the function of the school’s technology transfer program.

What is the primary mission of the Office of Technology Transfer and Outreach Coordination?

The Office of Technology Transfer and Outreach Coordination has two functions. The technology transfer piece relates primarily to technology-based partnerships that may come from technologies that we develop here on campus, inventions that are made in our various research labs and forming technology-based partnerships for the university that embrace all eight campuses.

The technologies that are most common are either in the biomedical area or liquid crystals and polymers or software areas. Those are the three arenas where we do most of our activity.

The outreach is a little more general in terms of helping to establish these collaborations and partnerships with businesses or economic development groups primarily around Northeast Ohio. Those partnerships run the gamut from actual technology licenses, where some of the technologies invented here at the university are licensed to businesses that want to make new products. We have a number of those kind of licensing arrangements with companies.

Secondly, our office has been active in helping university-related start-up companies. We’ve had a number of companies that have either involved university faculty as proprietors or small start-ups that have been licensees of university technologies.

We’ve tried to facilitate the success of those companies by helping them get resources, whether it’s finding the right location or connecting them to angel investors to get money or financing.

On a broader basis, we have individual company collaborations. There’s one in the liquid crystal and polymer area involving Kent State, the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University called Advanced Liquid Crystalline Optical Materials (Alcom), a three-way academic partnership that facilitates research for liquid crystal and polymer projects. We have a number of collaborating companies that work with these three universities via the Alcom structure.

Kent State University’s sponsored research base, which drives inventions, is now about $28 million.

Can you give an example of how your office has been the catalyst for a new business?

One of these university-related start-up companies is Viztech, a licensee of some Kent State technology in the area of polymer films. Their goal is to make flexible plastic displays. We’ve licensed them some technology invented here at Kent State and we’re helping them get situated in their headquarters in Streetsboro.

We’re helping them get connected with some resources and financing — they’re working on their second round of venture capital. They’ll be hiring more employees, and for a high-tech company, the average wage is quite high. That’s an example where we’ve given some technology to a small company and helped them get established in the area.

It will hopefully be a significant financial benefit to everybody.

How can companies find out what technology is available?

Currently we market primarily on the Web, and we seek partners in whatever technology area we have. Liquid crystals and polymers have been our biggest area of licensing to date. Since our Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State is the largest academic research center in the world focused on liquid crystals, it’s quite well known.

We have about 40 company partners from this area and around the country that work with us regularly and are part of a partnership program, like Crystaloid (Electronics Co.) in Hudson and Kent Displays Inc. We bring them here for training, and they’re always checking with us on what kinds of new technologies we have.

What’s in it for the university to share these licenses?

Everybody benefits in several ways, but the company obviously gains access to university technology, which they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and the university gets money back. (KSU’s licensing income last year was nearly $400,000.) The university’s main mission, in terms of technology transfer, is to make these technologies available for the public good.

Generally, most technology transfer offices do a little better than break even. But if you have a big winner, like a Gatorade (which came out of) the University of Florida, it can bring in millions. So if you have a big winner, it can be extremely lucrative.

Is there competition among companies to gain access to a certain technology or patent?

We try to satisfy all comers. There are various kinds of licensing arrangements. Some of these technologies, if they look like they have broad applicability, can be licensed nonexclusively to companies, meaning they can be licensed to more than one company for the same application.

Some of our earlier liquid crystal display technologies needed a lot more development or a lot of investment, and companies are reluctant to do that unless they can have a piece of it exclusively themselves. Both approaches have been taken. Part of it is kind of a timing issue because these technologies are almost always early, because they’re coming out of a university, and sometimes it’s hard to get companies interested because it is so early.

And then you’ll get one taker, they’ll start to run with it, and word will get out that so-and-so company has this, and then you’ll find people coming in later saying, ‘Hey, I want that, too.’ Then you just have to deal with it at that time.

Have you ever had to turn away a company?

We have tried not to say no. You try to keep everybody as satisfied as possible.

And of course we have many scientists here inventing new things all the time, and there are always new things to bring to the marketplace, too.

How do you stay on top of all the research that is being conducted within the university?

It’s tough, because at a large university, it’s quite diverse. I spend a lot of time on campus, circulating with faculty, going to technical meetings around campus and staying in the network of what kinds of technologies are being developed.

We also do educational seminars around the university on what technology transfer is and what the patenting process involves and what you get if your technology is patented and licensed, because there is money that goes back to these inventors, as well as the inventors’ department and other areas of the university when a license is successful.

There are also policies in place at Kent State that say if you invent something, you need to disclose it to the technology transfer office. How to reach: Kent State University Office of Technology Transfer and Outreach Coordination, (330) 672-2692