Tag Archives: commercialization

The Academic Comfort Zone

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
-Neale Donald Walsch

Being in your comfort zone is overrated. To convince yourself of this fact, simply interview anyone who has achieved something worthwhile, and you will find that going outside of the comfort zone was an indispensable step in their achievement.

Universities are engines of innovation, but most agree that the rate at which innovation emerges from universities in the form of new products and services is much lower than it could be. What is limiting this rate?

To answer this, we need to realize is that universities are a refuge of sorts – a place that is designed to enable brilliant minds to engage in discovery unfettered by the immediate concerns of ROI.

Universities are vital to the process of innovation and advancement: they educate students who bring new ways of thinking to old problems, and they make new discoveries that no one else would make because no one else has the opportunity to delve so deeply.

In creating this type of refuge, we also create a comfort zone. Because governmental support for science and technology is designed to support long-term, high-risk work regardless of immediate return, ROI is not a factor in getting government funding. University researchers become successful at pitching research ideas without serious reference to commercial outcome. Peer review – which is critical for the success of science – further reinforces this tendency.

University researchers are rewarded for thinking in this very specific way, and this creates the comfort zone. As it dawns on a researcher that they may need to work with a company or an entrepreneur to see their discoveries become products or services that can benefit society, they may find themselves a victim of their own past success. Many researchers reflexively approach companies as if they are yet another type of funding agency, but since companies are not in the grant-making business, a partnership fails to materialize.

This basic failure to communicate means valuable commercial opportunities are often not recognized, or when they are, the resulting partnership does not go well. Communication failure is the rate-limiting step in commercializing university innovations. Communication failures lead to loss of trust. Without trust, our partnerships fail.

The communication gap between scientists and non-scientists is well-recognized. Organizations such as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science work “to train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline.”  If scientists fail to communicate to non-scientists, there can be no impact of new ideas and discoveries on how the rest of the world operates.

With the decrease in research funding from government sources – arguably due, in part, to this communication gap – researchers are experiencing more pressure to move outside of their comfort zone and work with partners in commerce. Some will be successful, others will not.

Universities and their funding models have inadvertently created this ROI-free comfort zone for researchers. It is arguably the university’s responsibility to give researchers the tools and training to bridge the resulting communication gap. Researchers need to be amenable to pushing the envelope as well, and at the very least, seek out guidance about how to pitch to companies and entrepreneurs.

Once you recognize that you are in a comfort zone, it’s easy to know what to do next – it’s the thing you know you should do, but that inspires your greatest degree of procrastination. The best day to put that very thing on your to-do list is today.

My First Experience with Technology Transfer

In genetics, one of the time-honored ways of studying something is to focus on how it is broken.  Genes are part of systems, links in chains of events that organisms rely on to do what they do.  When you break a link in the chain, it allows you to understand how the organism functions.

In graduate school, I was interested in sugar metabolism in Agrobacterium tumefaciens, so I used a nitrous acid mutagenesis protocol on a strain of the bacterium in order to randomly “break” genes throughout the organism’s genome.  I set to work sifting through the results, looking for mutant strains with altered sugar metabolism.

The strain I was using was known to convert lactose into 3-ketolactose, which has some vitamin-C like properties.  I found a mutant strain that would convert lactose in the growth medium into large quantities of 3-ketolactose – and when I tested the strain with other sugars I saw similar results.  Sucrose became 3-ketosucrose, trehalose became 3-ketotrehalose… any glucoside or galactoside disaccharide I used was converted. Even glucose, a monosaccharide, was converted into 3-ketoglucose, which was a bit surprising.

Since I had seen that 3-ketosugars had been proposed to be used as food preservatives, antioxidants, photographic chemicals, etc. my major professor encouraged me to disclose to our tech transfer office.

I dutifully filled in the disclosure and sent it in, and several weeks later I received a call from the licensing officer.  After giving me a chance to describe the invention and what I thought it would be good for, he asked “So, who would want this?”  I answered, “I have no idea, I’m busy writing my thesis.  I thought that’s what you guys do – figure out who wants these things.”

The outcome of my disclosure to the tech transfer office is not surprising – no commercial opportunity developed from this, and I simply published on my work.  But after I graduated, motivated by lingering curiosity I contacted an inventor listed on one of the patents I had found.  He had retired from the chemical company that had filed the patent, and was kind enough to take my call.  I asked him why the use of 3-ketosugars never took off in the marketplace.  He said, “They work great as food preservatives, but the molecular weight was just not low enough to be competitive.  If the compounds had had half the molecular weight, then the activity per unit would have been high enough and then you would have had something.

Half the molecular weight… 3-ketoglucose was exactly the molecule he was describing.  My mutant agrobacterium strain made lots of 3-ketoglucose, and the normal strain didn’t seem to make any.  It seemed like an opportunity had been missed.

It dawned on me that this loss of opportunity must be happening all the time, for all sorts of reasons.  The chain of events from lab bench to commercial product or service has many links, and it only takes one break in one link to keep things from ever reaching their potential.

It seemed to me that if you could understand how those links might become broken, you would understand a lot about the process of technology transfer.  And you just might be able to focus on making repairs or upgrades in exactly the right places.

A few years later I decided to see for myself what was going on, and I joined a tech transfer office.  Since then I’ve had the opportunity to identify the things that cause the links to break, and I’ve had the opportunity to address many of them.  I’ve also seen colleagues across the world doing the same thing, trying new ideas, and sharing their ideas with one another.

We have come a long way since the Bayh-Dole Act back in 1980, but fundamental challenges remain and we are barely tapping the potential of universities to create the future.  Universities are goldmines of potential innovation, and filled with exceptional people who are looking for ways to get the results of their research “out there.”  This blog is dedicated to helping them succeed, and to helping those who help them – the agents of change in an evolving field – succeed as well.