Tucson tech: New era launches for UA technology-transfer team

Agency chief Allen's game plan is to boost licensing, startups
2012-09-25T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:23:55Z Tucson tech: New era launches for UA technology-transfer teamDavid Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

While it may be a "new era" for University of Arizona football, it's definitely a new era for another team on campus.

When this team connects on a deep pass, however, it can mean millions of dollars in the university's coffers.

The UA is remaking its technology transfer process - the way the school pulls inventions from the lab and gets them into the marketplace, for the benefit of the public and, to some degree, the university and faculty inventors.

And it's hired a new head coach in David Allen, who recently started as executive director of the UA's nascent Tech Launch Arizona (TLA). The prior head of the UA's tech-transfer office, Patrick Jones, left in January to become associate vice president for research, finance and business administration at the University of Oregon.

Allen, 60, most recently was associate vice president for technology transfer at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he was credited with turning a somewhat moribund program into a self-sufficient, top performer over a decade.

He's also managed tech transfer at Ohio State University, where he helped launch a research park, and at Ohio University, where he headed a biotechnology institute that spun off a multimillion-dollar drug company.

Allen is working on a strategic plan for Tech Launch Arizona, which will move along with current tech-transfer offices to the University Services Annex building (the former Tucson Electric Power Co. building) at 220 W. Sixth St.

We caught up with Allen a couple of weeks into the job to ask him about Tech Launch Arizona:

Q: What made you seek the job as head of Tech Launch Arizona?

A: "About nine months ago, my wife and I came to Tucson on a vacation, … and we came down here and it was like, 'Now I know what everybody is talking about.'

"The second thing was that we had completed a very big deal in Colorado, and I was proposing to take the office there to the next level, and there was some degree of hesitancy about that, because there could be other uses for the money. ... I said, 'you know, I've got one more in me.' ...

"And you know what? Arizona was looking at that point. So I don't know if it was serendipity or what - I just went all in. ... I felt I could leave my friends (at Colorado) in a good situation and I could take on another challenge."

Q: What will the structure of Tech Launch Arizona be like?

A: "The core of activities of TLA is to secure and protect intellectual property assets. If we don't have an asset, we don't have anything to build on.

"A second element of this is the Office of Corporate and Business Relations, to integrate that office into multidisciplinary, multiyear engagements with industry. It's different than licensing; it's different than federally sponsored research.

"The third party and also important is to integrate the University of Arizona research parks into the university in a much more seamless manner.

"Structurally, TLA will be the umbrella. TLA is an office of the university, a Cabinet-level office (reporting directly to the university president). There's few universities that do that.

"Under that umbrella, there very well may be a nonprofit to hold equity and to become involved in financing.

"By the beginning of the year, we are going to have five to six technology licensing associates embedded in the research-intensive colleges. They'll be close in proximity to the faculty; they'll have an office in that college."

Q: How will the UA's approach to tech transfer change with TLA?

A: "We're going to provide information that faculty can use to better work in the intellectual property and commercialization realm.

"It's a totally different approach we are going to use. Here's a good example: to go to a particular domain on campus and have a faculty member who has been an inventor be part of a seminar with the intellectual property attorney that wrote that patent application, such that you start talking about how the research was done, and how was that research transformed into a patent application, and the commercial outcomes of that.

"So we're going to have faculty talking to peers about science - that engages their peers - and how that was transformed into patent claims and what did that mean for commercialization. It's not, 'Well, here's what a patent is.' ... It will be very much a dialogue with faculty. …

"We are going to demonstrate that the faculty inventor is the primary customer, and that we will provide services to the customer they have never seen before.

"We're going to be involved in proof-of-concept grants and direct investing. This will pull a lot of people into the tent who heretofore felt the best way to do this was to be independent of a process that didn't perform well."

Q; What are some of the UA's main strengths?

A: "The McGuire Center, the Eller (College of Management), there are also other dimensions of economic development, such as the research park, the incubator there, what's going on up in Oro Valley at Bio5 - the whole idea of a translational research institute like Bio5 that's built around a purpose - and the greater Tucson community, which is a great entrepreneurial community.

"The community has made a great statement about indigenous development is going to be the growth engine of this community. ... I think we have what we need here."

Q: What's the next step?

A: "We're going to get new quarters, and in the next month we're going to do five or six hires. The whole strategic-planning process is going to be much more visible to the community; it's not going to be held under a basket.

"I think it's widely acknowledged that the University of Arizona has underperformed in this area.

"To attain the level of performance that we want in a relatively short period of time, there has to be investment in this office.

"I think the investment in this office is sufficient now to get us to a point in a few years where we're really delivering. My line is, 'We're going to be great in commercialization' - and that is going to occur sooner than a lot of people suspect."

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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