Education  July 30, 2010

Entrepreneurial CSURF connects to market

The university isn’t just for academics anymore. The Colorado State University Research Foundation is helping to make researchers into entrepreneurs, effectively taking technology from the lab to the marketplace.

CSURF has been around a long time; it was founded in 1941 as the nonprofit Colorado A&M Research Foundation. The agency not only handles technology licensing, but also real estate and large equipment purchases for CSU. But only in the past few years has CSURF really revved up its technology transfer functions.

“Prior to 2006, technology transfer was a really solid operation that connected CSU with the private sector, mostly through licensing technologies,” explained Mark Wdowik, vice president of CSURF’s technology transfer office. “Beyond 2006, it took a different flavor.”

Wdowik was hired at CSURF in 2006, after spending six years honing the technology transfer office for the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, an office that he launched. His addition to the CSURF team, which in 2006 totaled about six employees and is now above 30, kicked off a new era for tech transfer activity.

Wdowik, himself, is a good example of the entrepreneurial spirit that lies within the university’s academics. He holds engineering degrees from the University of Illinois, and built and sold Critical Dimension Inc., a Fort Collins technology company specializing in intellectual property development. During his tenure at UNC-Charlotte, he saw 18 biotechnology firms spin off.

Superclusters

The “new flavor” for CSURF tech transfer included a dash of proactivity and a splash of business development. In 2007, CSURF formed CSU Ventures to act as the business development arm of CSU’s Supercluster initiative.

The Supercluster setup aligns academic researchers, economists and business experts in an effort to advance research to the marketplace. CSU Ventures assists researchers as a development partner, guiding them through the intimidating world of business. Each Supercluster is paired with its own business arm:

  • Clean Energy Supercluster and Cenergy;
  • Infectious Disease Supercluster and MicroRX;
  • Cancer Research Supercluster and NeoTrex.

Even with the all-star team of business consultants helping to steer them and years of university and grant-funded research in pocket, early-stage spinoffs are still plagued by the prospect of raising capital. Venture capital firms, especially in the current economic environment, have little interest in investing in risky young companies. To that end, CSU Ventures recently launched a private equity fund.

CSU Fund is a 10-year private investment fund focused on seed and early stage companies. The fund is actively seeking investments and taking pitches from companies that currently have – or that could have – a relationship with the university.

CSU Fund I, years in the making, closed on March 31 and made its first investment in Prieto Battery Inc. The company spun off from CSU in December with the help of Cenergy. It is focused on technology developed by CSU chemistry professor Amy Prieto that produces advanced nano-based batteries up to 1,000 times more powerful, 10 times longer-lasting and cheaper than traditional batteries.

“(The fund) shows a whole continuum of resources,” Wdowick said.

Research, innovation

Along those lines, CSU has been actively launching new programs to help steer technology to commercialization. In May, the university cut the ribbon on its 72,000-square-foot, $53 million Research Innovation Center. The center features business office space, university researcher offices and state-of-the-art bioscience laboratories with a mind to building university partnerships in the bioscience sector.

In June, the College of Business’s Center for Advancement of Sustainable Enterprise selected the first tenants for its New Economy Venture Accelerator. The program seeks to launch CSU startups into commercial viability. The flurry of activity is unique to CSU.

“CSU is kind of in an avant garde position as a leader in this area,” Wdowick said.

Sometimes the hallowed halls of academia have no windows to the outside world, and smaller universities, he said, are often better able to implement sweeping new programs. He pointed to Stanford University’s initial reluctance to grant Google its license to spin off. But CSU isn’t necessarily looking for the next Google, and the tech transfer program doesn’t intend to be a one-hit wonder, either.

Through March 31, CSURF has facilitated five business launches and there are 13 early-stage businesses on deck for spin-off. The real winner is Northern Colorado, which in the past 15 years has benefited from 30 startups – some now household names like Abound Solar – that have in turn raised $700 million in private equity/debt; procured $80 million in government contracts; and had peak employment of around 1,300 jobs.

The presence of a major research university that shares that research with the business community will continue to earn the region its reputation for innovation.

The university isn’t just for academics anymore. The Colorado State University Research Foundation is helping to make researchers into entrepreneurs, effectively taking technology from the lab to the marketplace.

CSURF has been around a long time; it was founded in 1941 as the nonprofit Colorado A&M Research Foundation. The agency not only handles technology licensing, but also real estate and large equipment purchases for CSU. But only in the past few years has CSURF really revved up its technology transfer functions.

“Prior to 2006, technology transfer was a really solid operation that connected CSU with the private sector, mostly…

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