Moving Ideas to Market

Colorado has fared better than some states through the recent economic slowdown, and its continued recovery will require sustained vigor in technology transfer, sparked by the states’ top research universities as well as federal labs.

Colorado is a hotbed for tech transfer — research and development of scientific innovation through the phases of invention and patent, leading ultimately to licensing of intellectual property into the business community.

The 2010 report New Economy States, released by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, ranked Colorado sixth in the nation for its innovation capacity, and technology transfer was a factor contributing to that high ranking.

“We absolutely have to be great at tech transfer,” said Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. “I think we’re good now. We used to be mediocre. We still have a ways to go, to be great.”

Colorado’s top academic institutions are playing a critical role. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, giving universities, small businesses and nonprofits control of inventions and intellectual property developed through federal funding, stoked their incentive for pushing new technology to the marketplace.

CU researchers secured more than $790 million in sponsored research funding during fiscal year 2010-11, representing about a $50 million boost over the previous year’s totals. In the same year’s annual report, CU showed 253 U.S. patent applications filed and 33 patents granted. Further, 11 startup companies were formed from CU intellectual property, and $3.9 million realized in licensing revenue.

For the year 2010, the Association of University Technology Managers credited CU with nine business startups resulting from technology transfer, placing it twelfth that year among just over 152 schools ranked.

CSU Ventures, the office for technology transfer at Colorado State University, currently boasts more than $330.8 million in annual sponsored research funding. In fiscal year 2010-11 it generated 142 patent applications, saw 15 patents issued, spawned five new startup companies and pulled in $1.33 million in licensing income.

In Golden, the Colorado School of Mines also hosts a vibrant Office of Technology Transfer, listing 95 patents granted for innovations ranging from oxidation resistance coasting for refractory metals to microfluidic devices employing field switchable colloidal particles.

Ken Lund, executive director for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said, “I think the research and development and transfer of technology positions us well, because we have a strong backbone in that area, for a quicker recovery than some other states.”

David Allen, CU’s associate vice president for technology transfer, said successfully pushing the school’s new technology to the marketplace depends on a number of factors. They include developing an understanding of what the applications of its “over-the-horizon” technologies might be, while also working with what he called “serial entrepreneurs” with a proven “sensing” skill to make new technologies commercially viable.

“That’s what is so beautiful about the Front Range business community,” said Allen. “There are a lot of people who understand how that sensing works.”

According to Allen, a total of 52 companies have been launched based on intellectual property created through research conducted in the labs at CU, and 44 of them — 85 percent — have operations within the state.

Success stories include Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals Inc., located in Boulder with 135 employees. The company was founded on the discovery of Thomas Cech, a Nobel Prize-winning CU-Boulder Professor of Chemistry, that RNA could behave like an enzyme.

At CSU, the bulk of the school’s newly invented technology is developed through the College of Engineering and the College of Veterinary & Biomedical Sciences. The Colleges of Natural Sciences and Agricultural Sciences are also major players on the technology transfer front at CSU.

A vital technology transfer program, according to Todd Headley, president of CSU Ventures, requires an active two-way street between researchers and the marketplace.

“We push out the technologies that we have to the companies,” he said, “and what we also want to do is establish the relationships with industries and companies who know what we’re working on, broadly, and we want them to reach into us and pull things out, as well.”

The leading federal laboratory in Colorado engaged in technology transfer is located in Golden at the National Laboratory for Renewable Energy. In the last fiscal year, NREL completed two dozen licensing transactions, primarily involving patents or copyrighted software, according to Bill Farris, vice president for commercialization and technology transfer.

“Universities and labs are in the technology or innovation business, but we rely on partners to do the business-building part of it,” said Farris.

Allen, at CU, said that although the recession of 2008 took its toll on the field of technology transfer, there are indications of better days ahead.

“I think there is some slow improvement in the venture community,” he said. “What is important is mergers and acquisitions and public offerings, and there has been a pretty decent uptick in those kinds of activities in the last year.

“That creates an updraft, if you will, and we’re seeing some of that,” Allen added. “We’re at the earliest stage of the process of commercialization, the raw invention, and it takes a big draft to have an impact at the stage we participate.”

A lively spirit of mutually beneficial cooperation exists among the universities and the federal labs in Colorado engaging in technology transfer, according to Farris.

In fact, the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, which manages NREL for the Department of Energy, has on its board representatives of CU, CSU and the Colorado School of Mines, as well as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We see each other regularly, we’re active in the same community, and we have very common interests, everything from sharing best practices to trying to support economic development in the state of Colorado,” Farris said of his research peers. “I think we get along extremely well.”

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