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Kentucky’s C3 initiative brings shared tech transfer services statewide

This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

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The state of Kentucky — led by its two biggest universities — is launching an unprecedented effort to combine and share tech transfer resources among all the state’s schools in a bid to magnify the impact of research commercialization and “raise all boats.”

The Commonwealth Commercialization Center (C3) is designed to connect Kentucky universities and colleges in a bid to boost the state’s innovation-based economy, with research and intellectual property (IP) as the driving forces.

The goal of C3 is to translate IP and innovations into market-ready products and start-ups while providing businesses access to collective public resources. It will unify resources through a shared services model which all state universities can access. And, the program is creating linkage between economic development and university commercialization that’s creating a new dynamic in the state, according to its leaders.

Sharing resources

State government, through the Economic Development Cabinet’s KY Innovation, provides C3’s funding and administrative infrastructure. But the linchpin is the flagship universities — the University of Kentucky (UK) and the University of Louisville (UofL) — whose research leaders worked together to plan and launch the collaboration scheme. Morehead State University, Murray State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky University and Kentucky Community and Technical College System also helped develop C3’s framework.

“They’re taking years of work developing culture and resources and will effectively open-source all of that work for all of our other Kentucky universities and colleges,” says Brian Mefford, executive director of KY Innovation.

It all started when Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) and UK put an agreement in place to work together on tech transfer initiative. That agreement soon became the genesis of C3.

Dr. Tom Martin, interim associate vice president for research and executive director for the Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship & Technology at EKU, says partnerships like these are essential for the success of all higher education institutions, regardless of size.

“Smaller schools don’t have the same enterprise that Research 1 institutions like UK have. It’s a benefit to both comprehensive institutions like EKU and an R1 like UK,” he says.

For example, as an R1, UK leads the state in successfully competing for external grants — the pipeline for IP. They’ve developed the resources and infrastructure. Additionally, regional universities like EKU conduct research and develop inventions, but the scale of that discovery is limited and given the smaller budget the costs associated with that effort are significant. As a research institution, UK has the resources and organizational structure to assist EKU in the proper assessment and commercialization of basic discovery for the innovations of tomorrow. More importantly, this partnership creates a research corridor between UK and EKU, leveraging their individual strengths to benefit the state as a whole.

A good illustration of that potential symbiosis can be seen at Morehead State, which has a Space Science Center that works with NASA, while Northern Kentucky University has a top tier College of Informatics Center, but they’ve never had an outlet for pursuing commercialization.

Support for filling the gaps

As a result of the C3 agreement, presidents and top research administrators from most of the state’s public institutions held a roundtable meeting this past August during the Cabinet’s KY Innovation Day to discuss greater scale collaboration. Although many of the state’s universities and colleges have typically invested in commercialization efforts, most acknowledged gaps in their existing services necessary to bring research and development to market.

Allen Morris, PhD, director of the Office of Technology Transfer at UofL, says the topic that kept coming up was “commercialization support.”

Just six months later, he says, “it’s all coming together pretty quickly.”

UK and UofL will provide resources to all the state’s public universities and colleges. Faculty and students at Kentucky institutions will have access to shared services including identification, development, marketing and protection of IP, as well as increased industry engagement, student experiential learning and workforce development. The program will also foster interstate collaboration to form a regional commercialization corridor. C3 will be funded, in part, through a multi-year $1.2 million grant from KY Innovation.

“C3 will offer a single point of entry for start-ups and corporations interested in engaging with our universities and the talent and innovation that can fuel growth for their businesses,” Mefford says. “We want C3 to become known as a key partner for innovation, research and development for entrepreneurs and CEOs who are looking to locate or grow their business in Kentucky.”

Culture change toward collaboration

On an even broader level, Mefford sees the effort as “an opportunity for culture change as we cultivate collaboration — not just across our various campuses statewide, but also with corporations and start-ups who are interested in university collaboration to support their R&D and talent needs.”

For university faculty and students (and the companies and entrepreneurs who will connect with them), C3 will also provide mentoring connections and represent a path to early stage and even growth funding.

“By aligning these various activities around university invention and innovation, we believe we’re creating a value stream that will accelerate campus-enabled commercialization,” Mefford says.

Ian McClure, director of UK’s Office of Technology Commercialization, said C3 sets Kentucky apart as a model for putting innovation to work.

“C3 is in its early stages and will take about one to two years to start seeing real results, but collaboration is already happening in new ways across campuses. We’re routinely together to discuss national best practices and dissecting the ‘why’ that makes all of this so important,” McClure explains. “We’re unified in viewing our campus community as a source for innovation that can grow new businesses and support existing businesses.”

The tech transfer offices at UK and UofL are currently working together on building a team that will be located in their own separate office in Lexington. The team members will report to Mefford and McClure or Morris. The team will spend much of their early time on the road (two to three days a week) introducing the program to schools statewide. There will be five positions and they hope to fill them all within the next 60 to 90 days:

  1. Program director — to oversee and manage program
  2. IP director: to handle IP, education, outreach and assess filings
  3. License and New Ventures Manager: for business development and licensing
  4. Commercialization culture manager: overseeing program promotion, marketing and education
  5. Director of Legal Operations: to build a network of affordable legal services for start-ups

“We hope to have contracts in place by the end of the first quarter in 2019 and then have a kick-off meeting to get the team on the road,” Morris says. “It’s exciting. We all have different strengths and areas of expertise, and C3 will bring it all together to provide structure, administrative support and help to govern actions.”

Shared services

Here’s a breakdown of what C3 will offer as a shared service for Kentucky schools:

  • Advisory services for administrators related to IP policies, industry research, culture development and innovation management.
  • Advisory services for faculty.
  • Increased education opportunities related to innovation, IP and commercialization.
  • Innovation and research asset marketing.
  • Invention review and feedback.
  • IP protection and licensing.
  • Industry engagement.
  • Student engagement.
  • Start-up creation assistance.
  • Patent and start-up legal services.
  • Grant coordination.

Mefford says early buzz about the C3 program has already lured entrepreneurs from outside of Kentucky to get connected with KY-based inventors at some of the state’s universities to help pull innovation out of the lab and into the marketplace.

“It adds another arrow to our economic development quiver — enabling us to provide and promote a single front door for companies of all sizes to work with our universities,” Mefford comments. “This is not only demystifying university tech transfer for the market, but is providing a much more friction-free environment for innovators to connect and test opportunities for commercialization.”

No one is predicting immediate results, but Martin is confident that C3 will ultimately be a game-changer for the state’s research commercialization enterprise. “Look where we are 10 years from now, 20 years from now, when this is embedded in the culture of Kentucky institutions.”

Contact Mefford at brian.mefford@ky.gov; Martin at (859)622-2334 or tom.martin@eku.edu; McClure at 859.323.1054 or ian.mcclure@uky.edu; and Morris at 502-852-2965 or allen.morris@louisville.edu.


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