By Keith McDowell
You open your birthday gift and find … yes! … the latest gadget to satisfy your need for a technological fix. But wait! Attached is that little sticker that says, “Batteries not included.” Darn. It’s the one battery size that you don’t have and a battery did not come with the gift. How annoying! Now you’ll have to make a trip to the store to achieve full gratification.
Technology commercialization is like that. Initially, you have the idea which results in a discovery and possibly an invention. But that’s only the gadget. It doesn’t work without the “batteries,” otherwise known as proof of concept, reduction to practice, technology development, or innovations that make the gadget a commercial product. Or maybe your gadget needs more gadgets to be developed or a supporting infrastructure such as a faster Internet or advanced wireless connectivity. Where do you buy those batteries? Who will help you produce the batteries needed for your gadget?
Surprisingly, the answer is not a satisfying one for America. Bridging the gap, or what is sometimes called the technological “valley of death” as opposed to the venture capital “valley of death,” is difficult. It’s not just an issue of funding, although that is often a problem at such an early stage of development. Furthermore, Mother Nature sometimes just doesn’t play along with our technological desires and the invention is stillborn as a commercial product. But the real problem is neither of these. It’s the lack of early-state innovation centers! Gadgets without batteries have almost no place to turn to other than industrial R&D laboratories. And how many of those do we have left in America with anything other than a short-term profit driven motive?
The good news is that there is a movement afoot to rectify this problem, but it is at an early stage of implementation and is still experimental. It’s a movement to create innovation centers attached to research universities. So what is an innovation center? A simple version is the “proof of concept” center (POCC) as epitomized by the Deshpande Center at the MIT School of Engineering and the von Liebig Center at the University of California San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Such centers do not have a permanent research staff and are more tightly focused on proof of concept as opposed to also carrying out R&D to produce innovations related to a given technology. An analysis of these centers and this concept is provided by Christine A. Gulbranson and David B. Audretsch in the article Proof of Concept Centers: Accelerating the Commercialization of University Innovation.
I personally don’t advocate for use of the POCC phrase since it is not a term of art in the world of technology commercialization, although it appears in several reports and is used by some. It is ill-defined and specifies a very narrow part of the spectrum for moving discoveries along the path to commercialization. Although no phrase has clearly emerged to describe the important concept of providing the “batteries,” I prefer the phrase “innovation center.” Do models exist for innovation centers as opposed to POCCs? Two come to mind: the Alabama Innovation, Mentoring and Entrepreneurial (AIME) center and the Biodesign Institute.
The AIME center at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was one of the first innovation centers formed and incorporates many of the functions required. The AIME process is as follows: university invention disclosures – or sometimes external invention disclosures – are triaged by a team including students from various disciplines. Those disclosures with commercial potential, but with a need for market analysis or additional R&D, are submitted to AIME as projects. The permanent R&D staff at AIME work with faculty and student teams to pursue development of the invention, often by introducing new innovations. Industry sponsored development also occurs as appropriate. If needed, the Bama Technology Incubator provides a home for companies spun out from AIME R&D. The ultimate goal is to provide a managed environment to bridge the technological gap from invention to commercially viable intellectual property.
The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University and its related Impact Accelerator couple with SkySong to form a new community of innovation in Tempe, Arizona. The function of Biodesign is similar in many ways to AIME and is an example of an innovation center. Quoting from one of their pamphlets, “Biodesign’s leadership team encompasses skills in science, medicine, engineering, computing, strategy, communication, and business to ensure that its research yields a clear societal benefit as rapidly as possible.” The pamphlet further states that “It has infused its programs with a focus on interdisciplinary teams and accountability to deliver practical solutions.” The Biodesign Institute is an example of use-driven research in Pasteur’s quadrant. As opposed to the macro-challenge approach of a DOE innovation hub or lablet, Biodesign represents smaller-scale challenges, but with a thematic research focus, collected together into a single entity having an overarching approach to commercialization of university research. The concept and approach is worthy of consideration and replication.
But let’s be very specific and provide two examples of “batteries not included” discoveries and how an innovation center should function. During my time as vice president for research at The University of Alabama, I ran into a prime example of a terrific and valuable enabling technology developed by Dr. Robin Rogers. Dr. Rogers is a world leader in the creation of new and targeted ionic liquids. Ionic liquids are like common table salt when heated to a high temperature and melted. The melt is a fluid composed of sodium and chloride ions. But ionic liquids also exist at room temperature and their ions are typically complex organic structures. Their properties vary with the identity of the ions. Choice of ions is part of the game. Ionic liquids are wonderful solvents with a very low vapor pressure and have the potential to replace volatile organic solvents such as benzene, leading to green chemistry. For example, several ionic liquids dissolve wood pulp or cellulose and have potential in the paper industry or for the production of cellulosic plastics or biofuels. Clearly, ionic liquids are an enabling technology. But to have a market for ionic liquids, R&D needed to be pursued to realize these specific applications, products, and materials. We turned to the AIME center using funds from licensing revenue and from industrial sponsored research agreements. Many successes followed and the lead research scientist was hired within a year by a major corporate sponsor.
My second example uses what I describe as the 10% wackiness rule. Hey, I’m a mountaineer who thinks that walking along a ridgeline in hurricane force winds is fun. And I’ve got the film to prove it! So, what is the 10% rule? Basically, it says that 10% of the time, you should take the riskier road. Do weird. Pick the non-conventional choice. Invest in the unproven. Does it work for me? About six years ago, my assistant in Alabama, Beverly Baker, informed me that a dentist from Rome, GA, Dr. Michael Blackmon, wanted to meet with me to discuss an invention. Wow, I thought. A doctor wants an appointment with me. Hmm, I need to make sure my magazines are dated and he has to wait a bit in the outer office. Oh, the joy of getting even. But then I thought, maybe this is another one of those nuts with the latest mousetrap. We scheduled the meeting.
Dr. Blackmon proved to be a very sincere person with a great idea. Mike had heard about a child burning to death in a car that caught fire in a traffic accident and the inability of a rescuer to get the child out of the safety seat. Mike took action and designed a quick release mechanism complete with engineering drawings. Mike wanted to assign his invention to the university, but with the understanding that The University of Alabama (UA) would pursue his invention. Apparently, other universities had turned him down. I said, “why not!” The project was given to Alabama’s AIME program. In a May 2009 press release, AIME notes that two chair designs have been prototyped and tested with release times of under two seconds. There is a very strong possibility that Dr. Blackmon’s crusade will lead to his designs becoming the industry standard. I hope so, but what a great story. It shows how the 10% wacky rule works in the real world with both Mike and UA taking the plunge. It also shows how an innovation center can be made to work with external inventors.
So, we come to the bottom line. Should universities open up innovation R&D centers to pursue research designed to open up and enhance market potential? How will they be funded, especially given the low rate of revenue return from intellectual property? Federal and State governments show no signs of any significant funding for such R&D innovation centers. Industry shows promise but is not likely to be anywhere near enough.
Then we have the plethora of university concerns. Should faculty and students be involved in R&D that potentially has proprietary dimensions? How do we manage conflict of interest and conflict of commitment given that R&D in innovation centers will be strongly coupled to startup companies in university incubators? These are just a few of the concerns campus administrators will have to face. But we must rise above such bureaucratic impediments and reach for the higher goal. Innovation centers are essential components of a twenty-first century innovation ecosystem. Our challenge is to find a way to make them happen.