The Ohio State University builds bridges from research to industry

When it comes to economic development, The Ohio State University is one of the biggest attractions of Central Ohio.

Kenny McDonald, CEO of Columbus 2020, says it’s one of the things they lead with in their sales pitch to get prospective companies to come to the region.


Kenny McDonald

Not only is it a tremendous resource in terms of raw material — students who become a workforce — but it also has research and thought leaders that help businesses grow and thrive, he says.

The challenge, however, can be getting that research into the hands of companies.

At more than 1,900 acres, over 90,000 faculty, staff and students, and total research expenditures of $982.5 million, the OSU campus is basically a city within a city — a decentralized, loose confederacy of a city.

Bill Balderaz, founder of Futurety, which delivers new health care technology, says it’s not very accurate to think of the university as a single entity, despite the “the” in front of the name.

“The analogy I would say is that it’s a lot of related companies or organizations that share the same logo,” Balderaz says.

McDonald put it another way.

“As an organization that works with Ohio State daily, it is a tremendous resource,” he says, “but it is a big institution and we don’t always know what’s inside the box.”

Showing the value

OSU falls into the adage that your greatest strength is also probably your most significant weakness, says S. Michael Camp, founder and executive director of the Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Institute.

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OSU is so diverse and has so much potential across multiple platforms as faculty members are empowered to do great things and advance science that he says it’s hard to manage such an organic process.

Camp has invested time and energy into helping get technology out of OSU since 2007. His group, which is part of the Fisher College of Business, translates applied research into commercially viable products and services by showing its business value.

“There’s really no market for research beyond contract services,” Camp says.

Good data in a laboratory doesn’t mean much, he says. You have to find out: Is it focused on a problem that matters in a commercially relevant way?

For example, it takes three to five years and $5,000 per year to diagnose IgA nephropathy, but a new diagnostic can diagnose the kidney disorder in 45 minutes, Camp says.

“They have all the lab data in the publications that show that it can do that,” he says. “But no one has translated it into a diagnostic product, and invested time and energy to take it through clinical trials to get it approved by the government so that we can market it.”

You can’t expect industry to see the potential when universities are so early in the innovation pipeline.


S. Michael Camp

“We realize now as a university we’ve got to take more ownership of that early stage and take it further into the commercially relevant in order to 1) find out if it’s worth anything and 2) try to get somebody interested in either partnering with us or taking it over from there,” Camp says.


Few companies can look at a technology and determine its worth, so OSU must translate it into something that solves a problem for specific customers, he says. Then, companies want to talk to you about technology that just a year earlier was sitting on a shelf, available to anyone that would walk in and assess it.

The Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Institute compares industry needs to technology in OSU’s intellectual property portfolio. For instance, OSU is strong in medical imaging research, but not much has translated into commercial value, Camp says.

Plugging the gap

Research centers help advance applied technology to commercial applications

col_cs_CDMEPArmorBriefTo bridge the gap between academia and industry, universities are creating applied research centers where industry works directly with faculty and researchers.

These centers — which at The Ohio State University include the Center for Automotive Research, the Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis and the Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence — break down silos.

With administrative staff and operational support, faculty from any college or department can work across disciplines on a company’s problems.

Joanna Pinkerton, former COO for CAR, says many of OSU’s centers have either been established in the past three years or grown significantly.

Companies aren’t focused on a certain department within a college, she says.

“They are saying this is my issue, this is my challenge, and they want us to assemble the team to solve those challenges,” Pinkerton says.

OSU has such a wide network of expertise, it’s critical to provide areas for collaboration, she says, where industry knows it can go, meet with faculty, brainstorm solutions and come up with a path to development.

Fulfilling needs

One center, the CDME, has added 20 people in Executive Director John Bair’s first year.

Bair founded Pinnacle Data Systems, a product development life cycle services company that he took public and later sold. OSU brought him in for his business and entrepreneurial experience.

Bair says research grants used to require a commercialization plan in phase two or three. That’s moved up to phase one, and commercialization plans are a differentiator for who gets awarded funds.

In addition, the available federal dollars have shrunk, so it’s important to get technology into the hands of industry sooner.

The College of Engineering saw this shift coming, Bair says, and created the CDME three years ago. However, it never got operationalized.

“They were trying to run the model through a university model, using researchers and faculty for what is like a business inside the university,” he says.

The CDME today is the first OSU center run by outside staff members, which helps create sustainability. That team has the mission of taking technologies through applied research and getting them out, Bair says.

“When we look at these opportunities, we pretty much dive right into, where is the commercial value for this and where is it going to go?”

John Bair

“When we look at these opportunities, we pretty much dive right into, where is the commercial value for this and where is it going to go?” he says.

If they aren’t sure about the value, Bair says they collaborate with other groups to determine it.

When Bair first came into the CDME, he did a needs assessment and created a business model. He looked at the key value proposition of what the CDME wanted to accomplish and its execution strategy for leveraging all university assets, while being self-sustaining.

He also sat down with industry partners, and sought to position the CDME around their needs.

Bair says companies want to leverage university infrastructure with dedicated engineers and other help. They seek connections to faculty and students, using that to provide industry-ready students who have already worked on their projects.

They want help getting grants, connecting with other industry partners on pre-competitive projects, and scouting and managing the resulting intellectual property.

Speed up the timeline

Bair thinks of faculty members as independent entrepreneurs who run their own research and labs. The CDME’s job is to make them successful.

Faculty members spend a small percentage of their time on research. So, the CDME provides engineering or dedicated program managers which faculty typically doesn’t want to focus on.

Bair discovered that when the research gets to a certain point, a lot of time is spent waiting for the next dollar to come in. In order to speed that up — because industry doesn’t want to wait — the CDME hopes to start an impact grant fund.

Bair says they can put that money into beginning projects, while tying them to industry partners. Once the correct team is in place and the technology has advanced, industry, venture capital or other interested parties will be more willing to put funds into development.

“Without that fund, the time frame of technology slips into year four, five and six,” he says.

In his short time at the center, Bair and his team are hearing from industry partners who haven’t worked with OSU before about becoming a member of the center. The CDME is what they have been asking for.

“It’s a place that they can work at the university, at the speed that they are working at, and working on technologies that can actually be deployed,” he says.

How to reach: Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence, (614) 292-6888

Camp’s group evaluated OSU’s portfolio of more than 45 technologies and identified five that would be ready for market within two years, had a strong patent and IP position and were beyond laboratory proof of concept.

“After hundreds of millions of dollars of research and development, there’s about five technologies here that would meet those conditions,” he says. “That’s just the nature of the beast. That doesn’t mean all the other work was unnecessary. It’s hard to say which ones are going to have relevance and which ones will get traction or not.”

Of the five, industry partners have shown interest in two.

“None of that would have happened five years ago,” Camp says. “If we hadn’t done those translations and reached out to the industry to try and understand their needs better. If we had not done a full assessment of our portfolio, if would have just gone as usual — and that would be more technology sitting in a lab somewhere that no one is even aware of.”

Even though the university has made strides getting research out the door, Camp feels OSU sometimes waits too long. Its applied research activities should have industry partners involved early on, with commercialization an expected outcome.

He says a small subset of the university faculty is interested and has the capacity to do this kind of applied work.

That’s where applied research centers like the Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence are playing a role. (See sidebar: Plugging the gap)

Adding resources

Michael Triplett has experience working with OSU in the commercialization of life sciences innovations. He also sits on the Wexner Medical Center’s Technology Review Board.

The quality of research, technology and people in Ohio is as good, if not better, than California, Boston or the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, he says.


Michael Triplett

“The difference was we just do not have the mechanisms in place and the culture surrounding those technologies, and how to monetize that, from a university or institute perspective as well as the investor community outside of the university,” Triplett says.

Former OSU President Gordon Gee started the ball rolling on improving OSU’s commercialization efforts, but the financial returns weren’t there immediately. Triplett says it did start to awaken the university community to monetizing IP through spinouts.

“You saw a definite energy level around the university and the activity really start to take off,” he says.

OSU has put additional staff and support in place since then, and the systems and culture are evolving. Triplett says the change isn’t as fast as anyone would want, but he’s as optimistic as he’s ever been about the direction the university is heading.

OSU also is hosting more events to introduce technology to entrepreneurs and investors, and colleges and departments see value in commercializing as scientists are rewarded for patents.

Serial entrepreneur Jeff Spitzner, who has licensed multiple technologies out of OSU says commercialization used to be considered a dirty, impure thing, and academics were just supposed to publish papers.


Jeff Spitzner

“There’s been better recognition that if you want your research to change the world, it has to get out there in the commercial enterprise to make a difference,” he says. “And also they are starting to value patents just as much as publications.”

Faculty see that commercialization isn’t turning them into factories and that it’s actually good for their research, Spitzner says.

Balderaz hosts a monthly group where three presenters share health care innovations with investors, entrepreneurs, inventors, doctorates and medical doctors, in order to get feedback, support and gain introductions. He says, on average, at least one of the three has university ties.


Bill Balderaz

“Ohio State is one of the best research institutions in the world, especially when it comes to health care,” he says. “They have dozens of really good ideas that would not only make great companies and create a lot of jobs and bring economic impact, but could help prevent strokes or be part of curing cancer or really have an impact on people’s lives.”

Again, that research shouldn’t be left on a shelf.

But you also need investors, entrepreneurs and people from corporations to take an active and collaborative role, Balderaz says. They’ve gone through the hand-to-hand combat of trying to create a company and failing, been in front of investors and gotten beat up, or worked in an innovation lab and gotten a product to market.

That’s all theory to someone at the university.