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Partnering With a University

Universities have long been centers of innovation. Now, many are partnering with entrepreneurs to commercialize their ideas.

Ah, college--football games, house parties and late-night study sessions. But the nation's campuses are about more than just entertaining the under-21 set; they're also brimming with new research and cutting-edge innovations. Commercializing these discoveries is a challenging niche, for sure, but one that entrepreneur Carl Gibson calls essential.

"After 2000, with the meltdown of the capital market, [big] companies by and large nixed their research arms," says the 46-year-old CFO of Ekips Technologies Inc. in Norman, Oklahoma. "There's just not the kind of funding mechanism in private industry for scientists to be unfettered in their explorations into some of these areas." As a result, he says, universities have stepped in to fill the void.

And Gibson should know, since Ekips itself is the result of a university "spin-out." Founded by University of Oklahoma professor Patrick McCann in 1997, the company today is one of the world's leading producers of health-care-related laser equipment, with 2005 sales in the six figures. Its Breathmeter, for example, is a device capable of diagnosing problems ranging from asthma to breast cancer by analyzing the contents of a patient's breath. McCann developed the technology and then licensed it from OU via technology transfer--the commercialization process for university-owned intellectual property--bringing Gibson on to manage the transition.

It's a pretty typical arrangement, Gibson says, and it allows everyone involved to focus on what they do best--the founder handles the science, and the entrepreneur manages the business side.

"In a nutshell, both parties--the university and the [entrepreneur]--need each other," explains Richard Cahoon, interim executive director of Cornell University's Center for Enterprise, Technology and Commercialization. "If you want commercialization of university innovations, obviously the [entrepreneur] can't do it alone. [He or she] needs the university and its resources. But without commercialization partners, university inventors are like one hand clapping."

Of course, spin-outs are nothing new, particularly at large, research-oriented schools like Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But growth in innovation-driven sectors like technology and the life sciences has brought more universities into the game, and these days you can find technology transfer offices on just about every campus in the country.

According to Cahoon, "Universities are becoming much more committed to participating in this whole area. Society, the public in general and states that fund universities have stepped up their expectations, so there's been a growing expectation that the university will play a role in technological development."

Idea Shopping
If a brilliant idea is just the thing you need to help your business grow, you're in luck-creation and discovery are in the water at the Kauffman Innovation Network, which recently launched the iBridge Network .

Designed as a pilot program for research and innovation, iBridge hopes to link brilliant innovators at top universities with entrepreneurs who can bring their leading-edge findings to market. The program doesn't just share research, though-it also encourages research breakthroughs between universities, a sharing of ideas that will help advance innovation and ultimately boost entrepreneurship in general. "It's not just about licenses-it's about facilitating and identifying opportunities for collaborative relationships," says Ken Lynn, president of the Kauffman Innovation Network.

To date, universities like Cornell and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have posted on the site. And while it's currently free for entrepreneurs to participate, that may change after the pilot phase ends late this year. By then, an e-commerce platform should be in place to enable entrepreneurs and researchers to make direct deals online.

In the meantime, check out the website to view the research and findings currently being posted in fields like life sciences and technology. If you find something applicable to your business, simply contact the universities on your own. Says Lynn, "Its potential use is only limited by imagination." --Nichole L. Torres

Timothy Sprinkle is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in a variety of national publications.

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This article was originally published in the June 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Come Together.

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