Partnerships in Innovation
Luckily for researchers in the Eberly College of Science, the newly formed Office for Innovation (O4I) is assisting scientists in capitalizing on the many benefits of technology transfer, IP development, and commercialization.
The O4I had its genesis in 2012 with an initiative to improve IP awareness and the importance of protecting IP among faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students in the college. However, Andrew Stephenson, associate dean for research and innovation in the college, had a much broader vision for the office. Stephenson, who directs the O4I, envisioned the office serving as an innovation hub for researchers and industry; assisting inventors in capturing IP; providing resources to perform translational research in order to move new technologies toward usefulness; locating industry partners in order to make Eberly College of Science–developed technologies more attractive for licensing; and to foster startup companies based upon college technologies.
With support from Penn State President Eric Barron, the college is able to make Stephenson’s vision a reality by assisting inventors using college and University-wide resources, including the new Invent Penn State initiative. According to Barron, “The aim of ‘Invent Penn State’ is to drive job creation, economic development and student career success by connecting researchers with the people who can help bring their discoveries to the marketplace. This will benefit the communities we serve and the innovators working among us. Penn State is developing a culture that encourages, nurtures, and rewards entrepreneurship.”
President Barron realized that in order to have a successful venture, inventors need more than just financial support; they also need legal advice, mentors, collaborators, and business training. Invent Penn State is an initiative that provides these types of resources for inventors and entrepreneurs through conferences and events, trainings, seminars, funding, fellowships, and facilities.
The O4I collaborates with the Invent Penn State initiative to assist researchers in getting their inventions from lab bench to industry and the public sector. The college recognized that to have this type of entrepreneurship and economic development from science, the O4I needed staff skilled in technology transfer with industry experience. The O4I added two full-time IP/tech transfer liaisons, Melissa Long and Ashley Chan; a graduate student intern, Glenn Watson; and a volunteer entrepreneur in residence, Matt Rhodes, who is also a Penn State alum and member of the Penn State Research Foundation. The team serves as consultants to inventors to help them understand and provide information and direction on IP, the tech transfer process, and working with industry. The group also interfaces with industry, helping to build relationships and market available technologies and inventions.
Stephenson, Long, and Chan work directly with inventors in the early stages of research, educating on the importance of protecting their work and helping them identify potential IP. Additionally, the team provides advice, identifies funding and University resources, and connects inventors to University contacts and industry collaborators to commercialize and license their inventions.
Entrepreneurship and startup businesses are sometimes a result of these inventions. Rather than selling IP to industry, some researchers choose to instead go into business themselves. Rhodes, the O4I entrepreneur in residence, is the key contact for those inventors considering a startup company. A successful entrepreneur in the semi-conductor industry himself, Rhodes is available to inventors for consultation to discuss the feasibility of a startup and advice on how to run a business.
Providing Industry Prospective
The O4I also collaborates with the college’s Biotechnology Advisory Board to help inventors by reviewing and evaluating IP and inventions, and providing industry advice on how to best get the inventions to market. The volunteer members of the board have been instrumental in creating an entrepreneurial environment for both researchers and students. The board, which developed out of the college’s master of biotechnology degree program, has several objectives, including: advancing new and novel biotechnologies; creating a culture of collaboration and partnership focused on advancing innovations to commercialization; becoming a recognized leader in integrating quality education with and entrepreneurial environment; and preparing and supporting faculty and students for successful development and commercialization of scientific innovations. The college’s Biotechnology Advisory Board is the first such volunteer board of its kind across the University. This group of alumni and friends of the college has University-wide regard; their activities are considered best practices and many other colleges are emulating the board and creating their own.
Stephenson believes this kind of board has been so valuable that he’s looking to find members in other disciplines to help further the college’s IP outside of biotechnology-related fields to start a Technology Advisory Board.
“We are really looking for alumni with experience in technology licensing and startups for disciplines outside of biotechnology, particularly in the areas of physical science, materials science, computational science, and analytics,” he said.
This new board will assist the O4I and Biotechnology Advisory Board with its technology transfer initiatives by providing high quality feedback on technology inventions. Specifically, the board members will review technology and advise on de-risking and proof of concept strategies, advise Penn State inventors and research leaders, and advocate for emerging technologies in the college.
Bench to Big Picture
In addition to college resources and Invent Penn State, the University, through the Penn State Research Foundation (PSRF), collaborates with the college to support a Lab Bench to Commercialization Grant Program (LB2C) that provides funding for researchers in the college. This competitive grant program enables researchers to enhance the commercial potential of ongoing research and prepare them to translate their IP to the marketplace.
To apply for the grant program, applicants must demonstrate that the funding will significantly impact development activities for existing IP or research that may be commercialized. Research and inventions include tangible products, therapeutics, processes/methods, software, or improvement of a current market product. After being reviewed for scientific merit and commercialization potential, awardees are granted $75,000 to be used within one year. In addition to funding, researchers also have the added benefit of working with the PSRF Fund for Innovation Program, which assists grantees in critically evaluating their technology, finds market applications, and provides development and commercialization plan feedback. These services, along with the funding, provide inventors with the opportunity to take their inventions from the lab bench to the public sector where they can see real societal benefits.
“Historically we’ve not done well at generating IP despite the fact that we’re doing great science,” said Stephenson. “We’ve been great at impacting disciplines, just not society.”
However, the LB2C funding is helping to shift the college and its researchers into producing more IP and inventions. In the last two years, the college was able to award 8 of 26 applications. The first year resulted in one startup, Stephen Benkovic and his boron-based antifungals for agriculture and building materials, and several new or improved technologies involving the following faculty:
LB2C 2014/15 Awardees:
Gong Chen and Yanming Wang: Working to characterize a potential pharmaceutical therapeutic that suppresses tumor growth and reduces acute or chronic inflammation by reducing PAD4 enzyme activity to allow the body to naturally fight cancer cell growth and inflammatory diseases, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus. Chen and Wang are working to build a start-up company based on this technology and have an initial goal of entering clinical trials for the treatment of breast cancer.
Mauricio Terrones and Colleagues: Developing a thin graphene film that can be woven into fabrics or chemically altered to provide a wide range of properties. This graphene film could be used for a number of applications, including indicating structural damage in pipes or bridges, efficiently heating roadways and sidewalks for snow/ice removal, and ultra tough and insulating outerwear. Through his research centers, ATOMIC and 2DLM, Terrones is working with industry partners to develop the technology for specific market applications.
Scott Phillips and Colleagues: Developing an inexpensive, easy to use, and easy to read microfluidic diagnostic device composed paper. These microfluidic devices can be altered to diagnose an incredible breadth of problems, from compounds like lead in water to the presence of pesticides on fruit. The diagnostics can also be tuned to give users either a quantitative (how much?) or qualitative (yes or no) result. Phillips is currently exploring possible product applications and is interested in building a start-up company around this technology.
Greg Ferry, Thomas Wood, and Costas Maranas: Working to refine a biological process by which methane from orphan natural gas wells could be cleanly converted a number of products including a precursor to plastic or clean fuel. This technology is meant to increase gas well efficiency as well as convert harmful methane into commercially viable products. Woods recently received over $1M from a shale gas consortium to continue scale up of the process to generate plastic precursors.
LB2C 2015/16 Awardees:
Sarah Assmann and Philip Bevilacqua: Developing a kit to determine the 3D structure of RNAs inside the cell. RNA structure has long-been difficult to study due to inefficient and technically demanding methods. However, Assmann and Bevilacqua have created a kit that allows any researcher to study RNA structure. These methods are likely to be important for understanding cellular response to stress, such as chronic diseases, as well as compounds, such as pharmaceutical drugs. Assmann and Bevilaqua aim to license this technology to a company that produces research tools.
Frank Pugh: Optimizing his ChIP-Exo technology, which characterizes epigenetic modifications on a genome-wide scale. Epigenetic modifications are the changes on DNA that help to regulate development, growth, and disease. Many cancers are caused by the change or misregulation of epigenetic marks in the genome.
Mauricio Terrones and Siyang Zheng: Developing a diagnostic device that uses a specially tuned carbon nano-tube filter to capture and enrich viruses. Viral infections are often hard to diagnose because viruses are hard to culture and even harder to isolate. However, with this device, researchers and medical professionals could get definitive results from just a single swab or liquid sample. No culturing needed. Terrones and Zheng have created a start-up company, called ViroLock Technologies, to continue development of the technology and work towards commercialization.
Connecting innovators with industry is beneficial to more than just the inventor and investor; the research brought to society has tangible effects on health, energy, food, security, and environmental issues. The relationships between the inventors, University, and industry also spur economic development in the Commonwealth and beyond.
The O4I team works with industry to help potential investors gain access to available technologies within the college. The office connects and markets to industry through several outlets, including having available technologies available on the O4I website, working with the University’s Office for Technology Management, and through the college’s Biotechnology Advisory Board. The O4I also collaborates with Penn State’s Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, the Office for Industrial Partnerships, colleges and institutes on campus, and the Hershey Medical Center to develop University-wide partnership plans for industry.
The O4I contributes to this large group effort by identifying industry needs and fulfilling them. The O4I team works to develop a consortium of experts, consisting of Penn State researchers and company representatives in a particular subject area that work together to generate a resolution to a specific need. This type of collaboration often results in sponsored research and more IP being developed by college researchers. Additionally, the O4I team also assists those investigators who have already collaborated with a company and helps them to cultivate their relationships in industry.
Regardless of which step an investigator is on or a prospective industry partner may be at, the O4I is ready to assist both to achieve opportunities for meaningful collaboration. From capturing IP, to providing resources and establishing industrial relationships, the O4I is working towards achieving the translation of innovative research to the public, and in President Barron’s words, “turning great discoveries into a great economy, together.”