Your university might have exactly what you need to get your business booted up and running.
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This story first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Entrepreneur. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.One of the greatest things about college is being surrounded by brilliant people. With all the professors and graduate researchers around, life-altering technologies are being discovered on college campuses every day. Enter technology transfer programs, which help commercialize these discoveries by making university-sponsored technology available to student entrepreneurs. It's a unique situation that benefits both the university, which generally owns the intellectual property, and entrepreneurial students, who can contract to bring these ideas to the marketplace. "The central focus of technology transfer as a means of economic stimulation and regeneration for almost every university community is a hot topic," says Sherry Hoskinson, director of the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Arizona.
One of the keys to a successful technology transfer relationship is a clear understanding of who owns what. Says Hoskinson, "It's really clear to everyone that the university owns technical property coming into the exchange, but there's [also] value and intellectual property owned by the entrepreneurship students who articulate value propositions and create the commercialization plan." The technology transfer office at your university can help sort out legal and business agreements to ensure that everyone wins.
Harnessing the technology from the University of Arizona are Alicia Reeves, 27, Olin Feuerbacher, 35, and Rachana Gollapudi, 25, co-founders of Tucson, Arizona-based Innovis Technologies, a company that aims to detect impurities in water within minutes instead of days. The three were excited by the chance to commercialize a product that helps safeguard water and food supplies, so when the diagnostic technology they wanted to use was unavailable, they went to the university's Office of Technology Transfer, or OTT, and found another suitable technology. "We had to regroup a bit," says Reeves, "but the university has been very helpful." Incorporated in 2007, Innovis hopes to have a prototype by the end of this year.
Technology transfer programs can even help nontech businesses. Sharon O'Brien, 44, and Sonia Teder-Moore, 42, enlisted the services of the OTT in 2005, when they launched their nonprofit, SharMoore Children's Productions, as well as an educational theater company, Stories That Soar!, using a collaborative play proc-ess they developed with support from university research dollars. Last year, about 600 students participated in the Tucson-based group's 10 theater productions. And with plans to expand into the Phoenix area, O'Brien and Teder-Moore are expecting to see continued growth.
At the University of Maryland, there's growing interest in funding this type of research, notes Gayatri Varma, acting executive director of the Office of Technology Commercialization, or OTC, which collaborates with the university's entrepreneurship education programs. Says Varma, "When an inventor discloses an invention to OTC, we direct them to the program that we think can most successfully bring their ideas to fully realized products."
Even private consulting companies are sometimes involved in evaluating the commercialization potential of university technologies. Newt Hamlin, managing partner and leader of the finance/management practice at LGE Execs, works with many schools and sees growth in alternative energy and cancer treatment technologies. "Universities and professors are looking for guidance as to what's needed in the marketplace," Hamlin says. "While technology transfer [used to be seen as] a nice [addition] in major university systems, it's now being seen as a must-have."
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