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October 20, 2010

New fund launched to aid technology commercialization

The University has announced a new program to foster the continued development of promising new technologies. The Technology Development Fund will award grants to scientists in an effort to help advance a technology closer to the stage where it can be transferred to the market.

“Research universities are sources of innovation and scientific breakthroughs that can become the basis for new commercial ventures and, ultimately, economic growth,” says Provost Ralph Kuncl. “However, nascent technology often requires an additional period of research and development before it becomes a viable commercial opportunity.”

The bulk of the technological discoveries made in academic institutions like Rochester are in fundamental science and engineering fields. Typically, a researcher will obtain a government grant to fund a defined research project, and when the project is completed, the technology essentially “freezes” where it is. While these innovations often represent important scientific advances, many remain stuck in an early stage of development—from the market’s perspective—because they are unproven or still have high risk of technical failure. Consequently, they are not readily transferrable to the commercial sector.

“The objective of the Technology Development Fund is to support precommercialization research and prototype development in order to add value to early stage technologies and increase the likelihood of their future commercialization,” says Robert Clark, dean of the Hajim School. “In doing so, the fund will seek to close the gap between the culmination of laboratory research and the initiation of technology transfer through licensing or new venture creation.”

On average, every year there are approximately 125 “invention disclosures”—discoveries that potentially represent new technologies—reported by University researchers. The University will subsequently file patent applications for a subset of these disclosures and on average is issued approximately 40 U.S. and foreign patents per year.

The resulting intellectual property is marketed and transferred to the private sector for commercial development. The University currently maintains approximately 110 licensing agreements for its technologies. In most instances, these transactions take the form of an agreement with an established company; others go on to form the basis of start-up companies. An average of 3 to 4 start-up companies are formed each year to develop University technologies, the vast majority of which stay in Rochester and contribute to the region’s growing high technology sectors.

While industries are increasingly turning to academia as they scale back their own “blue sky” early-phase research activities, economic forces have also compelled companies to be more selective. Therefore, they often look to acquire and invest in technologies that are closer to market.

“It is well known that venture capital investors and industry have become more conservative and are more reluctant to gamble on early stage innovation,” says Peter Robinson, COO of the Medical Center. “By making strategic investments in promising discoveries, we can help move these technologies to the point where their commercial potential is more fully realized and, in doing so, accelerate the transfer of these technologies to the marketplace.”

The Technology Development Fund will solicit proposals twice a year. Qualified applicants include University faculty, students, or staff who have submitted an invention disclosure to one of the University’s Offices of Technology Transfer. Proposals will be reviewed by a screening committee of external professionals, including members of the commercial sector, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, scientists, and angel investors, who will identify scientific objectives that, with additional support, have a strong commercial potential. Awards from the fund will range from $40,000 to $100,000.

Volunteers from the screening committee, the Simon School, High Tech Rochester, and other entrepreneurs will be available to serve as “coaches” to help support and review the work of the awardees.

Michael Rusnak, the associate director for biological sciences in the Medical Center Office of Technology Transfer, will manage the day-to-day operations of the fund. Rusnak, who will now also serve as deputy director of New Ventures and Technologies Development, has more than 23 years of professional experience in the field of technology commercialization in both the private sector and in academia.

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