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New structure at U Alaska generates improvements in disclosures, start-ups


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: September 12th, 2018

In 2011, The University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) could cite three disclosures, one patent filing, one patent and no startups. Since January, 2012:

  • The number of disclosures has increased to 52;
  • 60 patent applications and copyright filings have been completed;
  • 13 patents have been issued;
  • Four start-ups have been launched.

What’s behind this dramatic improvement? A complete shift in focus and creative new strategies under the guidance of Helena Wisniewski, PhD, FNAI, vice provost for research and graduate studies and chief research officer since August 2011. She is also President of Seawolf Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of UAA, which is the commercialization infrastructure for the university.

“When I came here I saw a lot of talent, but nobody marketing and packaging it right,” Wisniewski recalls. “One of the first things I noticed was there was no structure, and that now is Seawolf.”

Seawolf, which needed and obtained the blessing of the university system Board of Regents, “provides a corporate interface between UAA and any entity interested in licensing IP,” Wisniewski explains. It also licenses IP to start-ups and holds equity shares in those companies on the part of the university. This infrastructure was put in place, she notes, “so that patents and inventions can lead to something.” The structure also insulates the university itself from liability.

When Seawolf licenses a patent to a start-up, the royalties from the license go to UAA and the net is distributed to the inventors. “According to Board of Regents policy, they get 100% of the first $10,000 received and then 50% thereafter,” Wisniewski says — a significantly higher incentive for inventors than many universities offer. “If a start-up is sold and UAA has an equity position, the equity comes back to Seawolf, which gives it back to UAA.”

Seawolf has a board that provides mentorship as well as guidance for licensing or patent issues, and for start-ups. The members are a diverse mixture of corporate CEOs, VC partners, and tech experts. “I got them through my career,” says Wisniewski, who notes that she has served at CIA and DARPA, been a senior executive at Lockheed, a vice president of other corporations, and also sits on the Board of Directors at Greatbatch Medical Devices, “so I have a network of colleagues.”

Wisniewski points to the board as a critical component in the UAA turnaround — especially since the small university TTO is located in an area without much built-in entrepreneurship support.

“That’s a problem in Alaska,” she concedes. Her previous experience had been on the East Coast, “where you have a whole network investors; that’s why, for the set up of Seawolf Holdings, I needed to have a strong Board of Directors.”

A detailed article on the U Alaska experience appears in the August issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and get the full article, along with the publication’s 11-year archive of best practices and success strategies for TTOs, CLICK HERE.

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