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.
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.
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.
“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.
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)
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.