To Start A Spinoff Biz, Look To Utah
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Some American universities have become quite skilled at turning academic ideas into marketplace successes. The University of Utah is especially good at that, so much so that officials from other colleges trek to Salt Lake City to learn how its done it.
From member station KUER, Jenny Brundin reports.
JENNY GRUNDIN: Back in 1984, Ted Stanley was having coffee. He looked at a bowl of sugar cubes nearby and had an idea. What about putting drugs in the sugar cubes? Now, before you get the wrong idea, Stanley was taking a break from his experiments on how to safely immobilize monkeys. The Utah research professor and doctor specializes in anesthesiology and pain. So what about putting the drugs in the sugar cubes?
Dr. TED STANLEY (University of Utah): Because monkeys like sugar cubes.
GRUNDIN: So he did.
Dr. STANLEY: And the monkeys loved this.
GRUNDIN: It was safe and easy.
Dr. STANLEY: There was no stress, they didnt yell, you know.
GRUNDIN: So Stanley starts thinking, what about for his patients? Soon he and his colleagues had developed the fentanyl lollipop. It quickly alleviates pain in patients with severe cancer. The University of Utahs business school told him he should start a company.
Dr. STANLEY: And I didnt know did-squat about any of that. Im a doctor, you know.
GRUNDIN: But the school steered him to business people, academic partners and patent lawyers. And the anesthetic lollipop became a multi-million dollar product - the universitys first blockbuster invention. Since then, the schools become a leader in commercializing scientific breakthroughs. So far this year, more than 80 universities have paid a visit to the college to find out its secret. That secret begins with a history of fostering inventions that goes back decades. Take this promotional video from 1984.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man: The greatest bioengineering effort in the world is at the University of Utah, site of the first permanent artificial heart implant.
GRUNDIN: The universitys entrepreneurial culture drew innovators in medicine, engineering and later computer graphics.
Medicinal chemist Glenn Prestwich came here from Stony Brook in New York. He describes the environment this way.
Dr. GLENN PRESTIWCH (University of Utah): Its a cultural difference, and its a focus on the entrepreneurial process as a scholarly activity.
GRUNDIN: He was also struck by the schools collaborative spirit, which he believes leads to more inventions. And there was something else he says: a deeper focus on the end-users of research, the patients and the physicians who treat the patients.
Dr. PRESTWICH: Without that focus, research is just kind of playing. The challenge is getting from the research, the technology, to a product. And thats what the U has become good at.
GRUNDIN: The U created 20 spinoff companies in 2008 alone, the same as M.I.T., but M.I.T. has five times the research budget Utah has.
Jack Brittain is the Us vice president of venture technology development. He says on average it takes 100 million federal research dollars to get a spin-off company.
Mr. JACK BRITAIN (University of Utah): We were doing one company for every 15 million.
GRUNDIN: To get there, the university has created an even more sophisticated operation than it had in the 1980s. Then the business school simply steered professors to contacts. Now it has a team of entrepreneurial faculty advisors. Theyre trusted peers high level scientists who know a lot about starting companies.
Glenn Prestwich is on that team and says asking many academics to turn their idea into a company is like getting a cat to jump into water.
Dr. PRESTWICH: How do you talk to lawyers, how do you talk to potential investors, angel investors, and you have to tell them why your product, your company in the health sciences is worth them putting half a million dollars into.
GRUNDIN: The school can also help inventors secure venture capital.
Again, Jack Brittain.
Mr. BRITTAIN: Taking to people around the nation, theyve kind of had this feeling that capital has dried up in the current recession. Were having just the opposite experience.
GRUNDIN: In fact, the University of Utah has scooped up more than 270 million in the past five years - 90 percent of it from out of state. Some of that money will be plowed into a special fund for researchers to build prototypes of their inventions, a luxury most colleges dont have. If the idea doesnt work, its back to the lab. If it does, its off to the patent office and eventually into the publics hands.
For NPR News, Im Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.
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