Tech Transfer University Reporter

‘Ecosystem’ is the magic word in economic development strategy

By David Schwartz
Published: October 28th, 2013

As an increasing number of TTOs add economic development to their mission statements, new models are being developed for most effectively injecting the university commercialization arm into this process. As a number of experts have recently indicated, one of the keys to success is the coalescing of the diverse audiences that comprise what has become commonly known as the “innovation ecosystem.” Bringing key players in that ecosystem together to focus their energies on job creation is fast becoming a key priority as state and federal efforts to push for growth through new technology-driven businesses continues to intensify.

“It’s not just about patents anymore; it involves capital, entrepreneurs, facilities, and human capital,” says Brian Darmody, associate vice president for research at the University of Maryland, speaking in a recent webinar entitled “Transform Your TTO into an Economic Development Engine,” sponsored by Tech Transfer University. “The TTO is at the heart of job creation, and elected officials are looking for help from the TTOs.

For example, he continues, the University of Maryland system is working with an innovation coalition that includes not just TTOs but research parks, angel capitalists, state technology institutions, incubators, and seed and venture funds. “To the extent we can work with these organizations and partner with VCs and the state technology council, it’s a way to engage more broadly,” he observes.

 Successful harnessing the broader innovation ecosystem depends on establishing a direct tie between the tech transfer organization and its IP portfolio, entrepreneurial capacity building efforts, and the business community, asserts Steven Ceulemans, vice president of innovation and technology with the Birmingham (AL) Business Alliance.

Forces in the city are doing just that through a strategic plan called “Blueprint Birmingham,” which recognized the University of Alabama Birmingham as one of the major drivers of innovation and hubs of research and technical expertise, while also identifying a number of areas for the business community and UAB to collaborate and facilitate start-ups or proofs of principle. “As a direct outcome of that [effort], the BBA opened up my position solely to support tech innovation,” says Cuelemans, who assumed the position in September 2011.

Creating a continuum with industry

“There are many ways now to work with corporations,” Darmody told participants at the webinar. “It’s no longer just ‘please fund my research.’ We now have a richer dialogue, which creates a win-win situation.”

That continuum includes not only what Darmody calls “traditional engagement,” but “holistic engagement” as well. Traditional engagement includes “awareness” activities like career fairs and PR; “involvement” via research grants, internships, and industry affiliate/advisory board programs; and “support,” include use of student consultants, workshops and seminars, philanthropic support, and guest speaking/lectures. 

“Holistic engagement,” on the other hand, has “sponsorship” and “strategic partner” components. Sponsorship includes undergraduate research program support; graduate fellowships; and outreach programs, among others. The strategic partner programs include executive sponsorship; state education lobbying; business development; major gifts; and other partnership opportunities.

“We’re trying to develop easier ways for corporations to connect with the university,” Darmody adds. For example, a web portal entitled “One-Stop Shop for Business Connections” includes 11 links, such as “Recruiting students,” “Corporate and Foundation Relations,” “Licensing University of Maryland Technology,” “Connecting with our Entrepreneurial Network,” and “Finding Research Partners.”

These engagement efforts have become embedded in the university system’s mission statement as the result of a recently completed 10-year strategic plan, notes Darmody. “It was only a couple of pages, but one metric is the creation of 325 new companies over the next decade, and that drives a lot of policy and budgetary decisions,” he explains. “For example, we’re looking at entrepreneurial sabbatical leaves” that allow researchers to focus on start-ups.

The UM system also created a standing committee on economic development and technology commercialization. “This puts more emphasis on the role of the TTO,” says Darmody.

Internal focus also needed

“I agree the ecosystem in the community around the university is important, but you also need an internal ecosystem,” notes webinar co-presenter Michael J. Pazzani, PhD, vice president for research and economic development at Rutgers University. “Then, activities need to be coordinated across all offices.” Part of that, he says, must involve an organizational framework that ensures all the moving parts in the commercialization system are working in concert.

For example, at Rutgers the Vice President for Research and Economic Development oversees all of the following offices: the Office of Technology Commercialization; the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects; the Office of Research Alliances; the Office of Proposal Development; Laboratory and Animal Services; and the Associate Vice Presidents for Research, New Ventures, and Economic Development.

Other offices that do not report to Pazzani include Career Services; Corporate and Foundation Relations; the Business School; Agricultural Extension; and the Office of Continuous Education and Outreach. Two centers, the NSF Engineering Research Center and the NSF Industry & University Cooperative Research Program, round out the internal ecosystem. “When we talk to companies they tell us they want across-the-board, multi-faceted relationships,” Pazzani emphasizes.

A city-wide effort

In Birmingham, the newly formed coalition is moving forward with its first initiatives, with the major players including the BBA’s Ceulemans; Dennis Leonard, an innovation consultant for the UAB Research Foundation; and Joel Dobbs, an executive in residence at the UAB Business School.

“Right now we’re focusing on two different aspects of cultivating potential opportunities,” says Cuelemans. “One is new venture creation ­– identifying high potential innovations from UAB and supporting their initial commercial or economic development research to proof of concept or a commercial venture.”

The new venture creation effort is being undertaken through the Invention to Innovation initiative (i2i), which is currently being launched. “Dennis Leonard will go scout inventions we can vet and evaluate for commercial development,” Ceulemans explains. “Then Joel Dobbs, as opportunities arise, will build entrepreneurial teams around those inventions.”

The school, he explains, has a certificate program in technology entrepreneurship, comprised of four courses which take students through the start-up process over a full year. “We are formally forging a link to UAB by scouting technologies, attaching those technologies to teams, and then matching each of those teams with mentors experienced in that industry,” says Ceulemans. “That’s where BBA comes in; we have an investor base of over 500 local CEOs and investors who in the past had no direct connection with UAB. My goal for each of those teams is to identify an entrepreneurial backer, a market expert, and a technology expert.”

As the technology “talent scout,” Leonard has a clear idea of what he’s looking for. “The first question is, is it a well-articulated problem that needs a solution?” he poses. “It’s easy to find lots of great ideas, but they may not be sustainable in the marketplace. If the answer is yes, we throw multi-disciplined solutions towards it.”

This last point is critical, he continues. “Lots of universities have a tremendous amount of silos built within them,” Leonard notes. “Our campus is very, very open for reaching out. So if someone has an idea for cardiological monitoring I can call up the chair of the cardiology department, find the chair of the department of mechanical engineering, materials, and electrical, and we will all sit down and discuss how large the problem is. Then, if we have found a solution, we’ll ask how many people it could serve, and how much money it would take to get it into proof of prototype.”

Multiple sources of funding

Once i2i is up and running, says Ceulemans, “we’ll take the start-up companies that emerge from i2i and facilitate their growth.” Many of those efforts, he continues, will be undertaken in partnership with regional organizations like Innovation Depot (an incubator in Birmingham), the Birmingham Venture Club, which serves entrepreneurs, and Tech Birmingham, a tech support organization with broad membership.

In the new venture creation stage, a small amount of Proof of Principle funding is available, he adds. “Each venture gets $10,000 just to do some basic enabling work,” says Ceulemans. “Another program in the state ­–­ the Alabama Launchpad — is a business competition that has two tracks: Proof of Principle, which awards $25,000, or venture acceleration, which provides $100,000.”

As start-ups progress, seed funding from angels and grants such as SBIR will come into the picture. “Market forces will be at play, so our goal is to make these ventures as attractive as possible,” says Ceulemans. “One thing we want to avoid is a situation where we basically pick someone because we like them personally and continue to support them — without a direct tie to what the market is looking for.”

Contact Ceulemans at 205-241-8122 or sceulemans@birminghambusinessalliance; Darmody at 301-405-1990 or; Leonard at 205-934-2838; and Pazzani at 732-932-1500 or

Editor’s note: The full recording of the webinar "Transform Your TTO into an Economic Development Engine" is available on DVD and on-demand video. For complete information, click here.  

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