IT Trends | Q&A

Technology Transfer: How IT Can Help Commercialize University Research

The University of Kansas' Innovation and Collaboration division, tasked with bringing the institution's research innovation to market, has seen revenue grow 600 percent over the past three years -- thanks to an entrepreneurial, tech-focused approach.

A strong commercialization program can jumpstart innovation at research schools by helping faculty move ideas into action; providing topnotch advice on licensing and patenting; identifying potential corporate and foundation sponsors to fund research; and providing a startup milieu in which to help turn research into valued products and services. And it can bring in some serious cash: University of Kansas Innovation and Collaboration (KUIC), a centralized organization tasked with bringing the institution's research innovation to market, has grown KU's licensing revenue from $1 million to more than $11 million over the last three years.

Part of that success can be attributed to Julie Goonewardene, a former IT entrepreneur who joined the university three years ago as KUIC's president and associate vice chancellor for innovation & entrepreneurship — a position created to help put a greater emphasis on commercialization. A major modification introduced with her arrival was bringing together under one division several units that are normally separated, including licensing; corporate partnerships; company formation; research relationships with foundations; and industry contracting. Increasingly, the issues with all of those types of transactions are inter-related. "It's often very difficult to get them resolved at the typical university because you kind of ping between organizations," Goonewardene explained. "If the corporate partnership people want to do one thing and the licensing people want to do another, I can sort it out in about 10 minutes as opposed to six months."

Recently, Goonewardene spoke with Campus Technology about the systems she has put into place to help KUIC "leapfrog" over research operations in other institutions, how she intends to serve campus stakeholders in the near future and why she took the position in the first place.

CT: What systems are you putting in place to manage processes in your organization?

Goonewardene: When I came to KU, I set out to see how we could use technology to improve our performance and use technology in a way that a lot of other offices weren't.

ipAnalytx was one piece of that puzzle. It's produced by Pellegrino and Associates, a company that does valuations on intellectual property. The company was looking for a university to be a beta partner, and we said yes. [ipAnalytx, according to P&A founder Mike Pellegrino, is an online subscription program that "validates areas of interest in the market" by providing information such as who's buying and selling intellectual property in a given area or letting patents go or renewing them, in order to understand where resources should be allocated to have the greatest impact.]

Another thing that was going on, when we did corporate partnerships, we didn't do that in a very strategic way. If a faculty member got something going with a company, we might run around and say, "How can we help you?" But we never stepped back and asked, what are the strengths of this university? To what companies would we be attractive? What would be the offerings that we would make? Are there people within the company who would help us? I've long held that if we could get [companies] engaged, we could work with them; but we needed to understand how they were interacting with us.

When I came here, we reinstalled Wellspring [used to monitor and audit compliance of license agreements] so we could use it in a little more sophisticated manner. From an IT perspective, we can now see information that we couldn't see before so we can make much more informed decisions. As an example: It was really hard to see before that somebody wasn't paying us. We can see that very quickly now.

[And] we're deploying a constituent relationship management product. We're using Salesforce, and that's going to give us a 360-degree view of how companies are interacting with us. We'll know who they're hiring, where they're sponsoring research, where they're making philanthropic gifts, how they're hiring our students — so we can manage that relationship in a much more holistic way.

CT: What other groups will you be working with on this initiative?

Goonewardene: Career services, endowment, continuing education. That's been a very big undertaking for KU, both technologically and culturally. A person on my staff — Julie Nagel [the executive director of corporate partnerships] — has been the key person [in that effort].

We've also collaborated with central IT on this project in a way that we've never done before. We've enjoyed great support from Bob Lim, our CIO at KU, and his organization.

These are the ways you play leapfrog. You're a beta partner for software that gives you information that you couldn't get elsewhere. You deploy a CRM system. You work collegially and collaboratively with many other entities across the university to be able to get a picture that helps you do what you want but also helps them do what they want. And you enter into a partnership with your central IT.

Those are not commonly held practices that I see happening [in other universities] as people approach their commercialization enterprise.

I'm sure part of this is informed by my background. I probably would be more inclined to look at this and say, "What should we do from a systems point of view that can make us that much better positioned and that much more informed?"

CT: What new initiatives are you working on?

Goonewardene: We did a new Web page and reviewed 150 commercialization Web pages. There are some very good ones out there, but they're all on a theme. So we wanted to develop a Web page that was really different.

We did a series of interviews with all of our different stakeholders — faculty, entrepreneurs, investors, people at corporations, students in our university. And we were very careful in terms of developing navigation and such that it was done in a way that they told us they needed. It's much less tech intensive. I would argue that it's much more intuitive. And we have some additional functionality and tricks up our sleeve that we're working on for our second release.

In phase 2 of the Web page, we're looking at some very interesting technologies in order to have it create communities, to let people interact more — if they're interested in mentoring a company or being an executive of one of our startups. You might have people who have a specialized investment interest. As an example: There are people out there who — for whatever reason — want to invest in small start-up companies that are only focused on colon cancer. How do you find them? There are some interesting things you can do around building community that we're working through right now.

We also envision further expansion of the CRM project.

CT: You mentioned that you're working with the CIO. Does your group have its own IT group or do you go to central IT for most of this stuff?

Goonewardene: The answer to both of those questions is yes. I don't, in my organization, have an IT person. But there is an IT group within the research enterprise that I can access. And then I also go to central IT. I've accessed IT and probably pushed harder than it's ever been pushed in this way at KU before — which they remind me of when I'm adding workload.

CT: Let's talk about teaching and learning. I'm guessing that the work is primarily faculty-focused, but how do students come into this work?

Goonewardene: We do whatever we can to support students. Wally Meyer [director of entrepreneurship programs in the School of Business] really drives the student entrepreneurial efforts. My biggest job when it comes to students is to not get in the way.

Here's my philosophy that people hear me say all the time: Too often in the commercialization enterprise at universities, people think they are a filter. They need to be a pump.

The capital markets are pretty efficient. It's no mystery, the kinds of information that the markets need to make their decisions. So give them the information. Don't sit there like Solomon. Get it out there, get some feedback, move it.

CT: You've been involved in your own technology startups. Do you miss that part of the action?

Goonewardene: Sure, I do. But I do this work because of personal life experience. I don't want to make this personal, but just so you understand me, we have three kids. We had twins three months early, one at a pound, one at two pounds. They'll be 17 next week. I personally know that if you innovate and get things out of the university, you save or improve people's lives.

That's why I do this work, and that's why I do it with the sense of urgency that I have.

KUIC Metrics
The impact of system changes at The University of Kansas Innovation and Collaboration are surfacing in the metrics the organization maintains:

Fiscal Year 2012 Fiscal Year 2013
Patents issued 18 37
Material transfer agreements 111 159
Non-disclosure agreements signed 462 557
Company visits 27 34
Corporate research funding $8 million $9 million
Foundation proposals submitted 7 25
Web site page views* 2,729 18,449
Web site unique visitors* 846 3,233

*Reflective of Sept. 1 through Oct. 31 in each year

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