UA's new tech-transfer effort takes flight

2013-10-30T00:00:00Z UA's new tech-transfer effort takes flightDavid Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

University of Arizona computer-science professor Rick Snodgrass and his colleagues thought their technology to speed up database management systems might have some value in the marketplace.

But neither Snodgrass nor his partners had ever started a company before.

Enter Tech Launch Arizona, the UA’s new technology commercialization arm.

The agency approached Snodgrass and his colleagues and helped them develop their technology, called “micro-specialization,” into a product that could be licensed to big database players like Microsoft and Oracle.

Tech Launch helped Snodgrass and his colleagues, fellow UA computer-science professor Saumya Debray and doctoral student Rui Zhang, form a company, Dataware Ventures LLC. Tech Launch awarded the company a $39,000 proof-of-concept grant, and later helped the company land a $50,000 grant from Arizona Furnace, a Scottsdale-based startup high-tech business “accelerator.”

“We’ve been blessed with many mentors and good advice from Tech Launch Arizona,” said Snodgrass, who has taught at the UA for 24 years. “They were absolutely essential — we couldn’t have done it without them.”

Dataware is one of two UA startups Tech Launch Arizona has helped launch in just the last two months; the other is RapidBio Systems, which focuses on fast detection of biological pathogens.

But many more are in a pipeline that should swell in months and years to come, said David Allen, UA vice president and executive director of Tech Launch Arizona.

Since joining the UA to head the new tech commercialization initiative a little over a year ago, Allen has organized TLA into four different areas and completed key hires.

At the same time, he changed the culture of technology transfer at the UA, reaching out to faculty as customers with a series of workshops on commercializing technology. He also offered up a pot of grant money for proof-of-concept projects to take lab discoveries to the next level.

The effort is paying off, Allen said.

Since January, Tech Launch Arizona has filed 52 patent applications and issued 30 proof-of-concept grants, he said.

Part of those results are reflected in the technology-transfer statistics for the 2013 fiscal year ended June 30, which saw a slight increase in invention disclosures filed by faculty (144, up from 142 in fiscal 2012), and a jump in patent applications (135 from 119).

The numbers of issued patents and licensing deals were flat, and the number of new startup companies fell to three from five in fiscal 2012.

But Allen said he expects the numbers for the current fiscal year to show major improvement — particularly in the number of startup companies.

At the Arizona Board of Regents meeting in September, the UA sought and received permission for faculty members to own interests in a dozen new startup companies, including Dataware, with six more planned by November (they will be counted as startups when licensing agreements are reached with the UA). The UA is now negotiating 25 exclusive licensing agreements, including agreements with 17 startups.

“You’re always trying to go faster, but we’re on our plan,” said Allen, who came to the UA from the University of Colorado in September 2012.

Allen said he’s been especially pleased with the response from the faculty. “I think people now believe this approach we are taking will work, and people are getting on board,” he said.

A key feature of the new initiative — and one of the reasons Allen agreed to sign on — is that Tech Launch Arizona is a cabinet-level agency at the UA, meaning he reports directly to UA President Ann Weaver Hart, who said recently that tech transfer has been raised to a top priority at the UA.

Key steps Allen has taken include setting up new programs, including new outreach sessions with faculty, the proof-of-concept grants program and “commercialization feasibility studies” to gauge the market potential of UA inventions; organizing Tech Launch Arizona into four distinct entities; and hiring technology licensing officers and managers.

Tech Launch Arizona’s four parts are:

• Tech Transfer Arizona, which assumed the duties of the former Office of Technology Transfer. In February, Allen hired Doug Hockstad, from the University of Michigan’s Office of Technology Transfer, to head the new tech-transfer unit. At Michigan, Hockstad served as associate director of software and engineering licensing and managed the creation and rollout of a multimillion-dollar software product line.

• WheelHouse Arizona is a support network for startup companies that features subject-matter experts as advisers and plugs into other local startup resources. Sherry Hoskinson, director of the UA Eller College of Management’s McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship since 2005, signed on as head of WheelHouse in late 2012.

• Tech Parks Arizona, which manages the UA Science and Technology Park and the nascent Arizona BioPark, is headed by UA Associate Vice President Bruce Wright.

• Corporate Relations Arizona, incorporating the functions of the old Office of Corporate and Business Relations is headed by Nancy Smith, who ran the former UA Office of Corporate and Business Relations.

A new strategy of Tech Transfer Arizona is to “embed” licensing managers in key colleges.

Licensing managers are now embedded in the UA colleges of science, engineering, optical sciences, medicine, agriculture and life sciences, the Eller College of Management and in the Bio5 Institute, the UA’s cross-college genetics research institute.

The colleges each contribute half of the staff costs of each embedded manager, giving the colleges a stake in their work.

“The embedded model is a new model. It’s being aggressively applied here, and the commitment from the schools because of that is just huge,” Hockstad said.

Embedded managers whose names might ring a bell locally include Nina Ossanna, a longtime tech-transfer pro who is licensing manager at Bio5 among other duties. Paul Eynott, a pharmacologist who formerly headed U.S. technology partnership efforts for French drug giant Sanofi, is embedded with the College of Science.

Snodgrass said much work remains to be done to make Dataware a success.

“It’s a roller-coaster ride, and there’s lots of details and steps, but we got a good team behind us,” he said.

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