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Commercialization fellowships help get more innovations off the shelf

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

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Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on commercialization-focused fellowship programs. While this installment focuses on preparing and nurturing postdoc fellows for start-ups, next month look for Part 2 focusing on fellowships designed to recruit and train TTO staff.

Many good ideas are born in university labs. However, the road from an idea to commercialization is fraught with many pitfalls. In some cases, a valuable idea may languish in a lab for lack of an available entrepreneurial scientist to take it further. To help overcome that gap, a number of universities are creating commercialization fellowship programs.

Two excellent examples can be found at Cornell University and the University of Memphis. The program at Cornell is simply called the Commercialization Fellowship, while the program at the Memphis is branded as Patents2Products. These programs each have different goals and outcomes. However, the result is similar: innovations that otherwise would have gone nowhere are picked up, examined, and sometimes end up as the basis for a start-up company. The Commercialization Fellowship Program is for PhD students at Cornell’s engineering school. The Patents2Products program hires postdocs who want to spin out a company but are unable to do so due to such obstacles as having a family to support, needing health insurance, and not having the financial security to take a risk with a start-up.

How the programs work

Dr. Jasbir Dhaliwal, executive vice president for research and innovation at U Memphis, recognized that universities are underutilizing postdocs in commercialization and innovation. He came up with a solution that was a win both for the postdocs and the university. “Trying to set up a science-based company is very risky. So, why don’t we hire him or her as a postdoc and give them the two years to get the patent [better refined] for commercialization? At the same time, they can work here as employees, they have full health benefits, and they have a postdoc salary. So, they get personal financial security while they’re spinning out the company.”

Dhaliwal partnered with Epicenter, a Memphis-based entrepreneurial organization. Epicenter contributed more than half a million dollars to the program. With that support, Dhaliwal has hired five postdocs who have experience in areas needed to get U Memphis patents ready for the market. The school provides access to the technologies and puts them in touch with Memphis-based venture capitalists.

Dhaliwal is also happy to work with postdocs from other institutions who want to spin out a company with their own technology. In those cases, “I find a faculty member who can work with them to guide them,” he says. “The program is geared towards commercializing our own technology, but we will work with anyone who wants to come to Memphis and partner with my faculty. We know all the angel investors in town, and we can make them accessible to any invention that comes out of our labs.”

The Commercialization Fellowship at Cornell is a six-month program open to engineering PhD students. It is a rigorous, multi-step program that begins by evaluating technologies for commercialization potential. The length of the program is a critical element. “Having a period of months where you can give a PhD candidate an opportunity to remove themselves from the day to day of their lab work and provide some focus while they’re still continuing their PhD is important,” says Tom Schryver, the program’s director and executive director of Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement. “These are people who have extraordinarily busy lives with very, very high expectations from their PIs and advisors. So, if you don’t give them a little bit of elbow room, you’re not going to get the same outcome.”

The multi-step approach is another valuable aspect of the program. During the first few weeks of the program, fellows work on market identification. Then, they participate in the national I-Corps Program, where they generate a business model and validate the technology. During the last three months, the fellows are matched up with a team of MBA students. The fellows work with the teams to finalize business plans and to develop investor pitch materials.

There are distinct benefits to teaming the fellows with the MBA students, notes Schryver. “One [benefit] is, it broadens the exposure of the technologies to more students. So, we get more impact on the whole program. When it comes to figuring out market sizing analysis, [which] financial model we would use to raise money, or what is the right way to position that particular product or service, MBA students can be very helpful in that.”

Schryver is very intentional in holding off the introduction of MBA students until the second half of the program. “What I’ve seen in the past is that when you connect technologists and business people at the very beginning, the business people say, ‘that’s great, I guess I’m the leader’ and then they’ll just start taking charge. And the technologists say, ‘I guess business stuff isn’t for me.’ And [the team] starts off [with] a lack of connection between the two domains. The MBAs don’t learn enough about technology space, and the technologists don’t learn about the business space. So, we onramp the technologists [first] to think about the business model in a structured way. By the time they start connecting with the MBAs, the technologists have more power to be leaders of these projects and can work with the MBAs on more of a teamwork footing.”

The Commercialization Fellowship Program has an intellectual property thread woven throughout. “We’re with them in the application process through the completion of their project,” notes Patrick Govang, director of innovation partnerships at the Cornell’s Center for Technology Licensing. “There are several meetings that each candidate fellow has with the intellectual property officer. When we’re working with the fellow student, we spend a bit more time making sure that we’re fully clarifying the intellectual property protection process, the decision points that we’re looking at in terms of filing decisions, and how broadly or not we protect it. We’re there to support them as they’re going through their discovery process and exploring the viability of that technology in the marketplace and applying the I-Corps learning template.”

As does the Patents2Products program, the Cornell program removes financial burdens from its participants. “It is a paid fellowship,” reports Schryver. “We’re helping cover their stipend, and we’re helping cover their tuition.” This financial arrangement also creates some breathing room for the postdoc’s principal investigator, because it removes the financial burden of paying the postdoc. Schryver notes that the savings encourage PIs to be more open to allowing the fellows to have time outside the lab.

Program goals

While both programs generate start-ups, that is not the primary goal of the Commercialization Fellowship Program. “It’s important that we focus on the learning of the student,” Schryver emphasizes. “[A fellow can be] a great candidate who we think is working on an interesting technology. We all agree [that we] can’t wait to see what happens. Sometimes, we get to the end of the six months and [the fellow says], ‘Gosh, guys, I thought this was a cool technology. My advisor is awesome. We’re moving the needle. We spent six months to get all the right things, and it just turns out there isn’t a market there.’ It’s important that that’s an okay answer, because if we’re telling everybody, ‘Hey, this is all about starting start-ups,’ that person could feel like they failed when, in fact, they might have learned a ton, and they may have added a ton of value by identifying a technology that isn’t ready for commercialization,” he comments.

“When we get to the end of the six months, we hope that each one of these candidates is much better prepared to have a high impact on a non-academic career path,” Schryver adds.

And that appears to be happening with increasing frequency, with a number of fellows who have graduated from the program becoming start-up CEOs. “They’ve got funding to do that through a variety of programs, and we’re very proud of that,” Schryver says.

Other fellows have gone on to industry careers. “We have a few great examples of fellows that have gone on to jobs that they didn’t even know would have been available to them,” Schryver points out. “But they essentially networked their way in by having gone through a commercialization program. Those are direct impacts [of the program]. There is a broader sense of what is possible.”

One current fellow has expressed interest in working in a technology transfer office. “That was an outcome we hadn’t expected or thought of, but this would be good preparation for [a TTO role],” Schryver notes.

Though the program prioritizes educational goals over business creation goals, its results have been a boon to the campus start-up scene. “I believe that by this program being here, there will be more start-ups than there would have been had this program not been here,” Schryver asserts. “That’s a rising tide. It lifts all boats to the benefit of this ecosystem. But we don’t want fellows to feel like that’s their obligation.”

And Govang sees the fellows program as giving the school’s tech transfer efforts a boost as well. “The experience is great because it helps us put together some strategic thinking around the technology,” he says. “[We see] where the students are going to move forward with that technology. We’ve got a great network of incubators and programming that is there to help them carry the idea forward and start to find financing to commercialize that idea.”

Adds Schryver, “For [the fellows] that do go on and create start-ups, they wind up being better licensees. So we work closely with [the Center for Technology Licensing]. I consider them a key partner.”

Memphis focuses on start-ups

For Patents2Products, accelerating the commercialization of U Memphis intellectual property and creating spin-out companies are the primary goals. Dhaliwal expects to spin out six companies in the first year. The goal is for every patent assigned to a fellow to result in a start-up or other commercialization path.

“That’s our goal,” said Dhaliwal. “But because we’ll be setting up a company fairly quickly, let’s say after one and a half years of further development of the patent, the patent becomes more valuable. If at that point a company with an equity fund comes in and says they’d like to buy our product, we’ll do that too. But the point is to invest in our work full-stop so that the patent portfolio becomes more valuable for the commercial market case.” Assuming all goes as planned, the program will have a six-person cohort every year going forward, resulting in six new spin-out companies each year.

The Patents2Products program is a joint project of the university and Epicenter, whose focus among other priorities is to launch new programs where there are gaps in entrepreneurship. “The Patents2Products program fits firmly [within] the ‘fill a gap’ [mandate] … by having a designed program specifically oriented to entrepreneurial postdocs to encourage innovation,” comments Leslie Lynn Smith, president and CEO of Epicenter. “[Dr. Dhaliwal] is the type of partner that we love to work with because our goal is to elevate an entrepreneurial movement that produces 500 companies over a decade and supports 1,000 entrepreneurs. We can’t do that without dozens of partners.”

Benefits to the university

The Commercialization Fellowship Program has produced an uptick in new start-up teams coming together, and an associated influx of both SBIR funds and private capital. Another benefit is that a broader message is reaching faculty, postdocs, and PhDs. Schryver notes that they are thinking more about what is possible in terms of research commercialization and beginning to think of entrepreneurship as something they could do, too.

The program is also drawing the interest of non-engineering PhD candidates. “That’s led us to connect those people to other programs,” reports Schryver. “We don’t have anything in other schools that’s quite like what we have in engineering, but at least we can start connecting these other PhD candidates to programs like the I-Corps as [a place where] they can go to get help with commercialization.”

The Patents2Products program offers its postdocs the opportunity to learn from each other, working side by side in the university’s CommuniTech Research Park, where undergraduates and master’s students will also be working. A faculty advisor is appointed for each of these postdocs as well, so they will be working in labs where they will be interacting with the other PhD students. “That’s a great mixture for innovation,” said Dhaliwal. “It moves basic science forward much faster. At the same time, the faculty member and the doctorate and master’s student working in the lab learn to understand the commercial dimension of their science.”

Program challenges

Both Dhaliwal and Schryver cited recruiting participants to their respective programs as their biggest challenge. “My biggest challenge is to find the right postdoc who wants to spin a company out,” said Dhaliwal. “You get all these postdoc applications to sift through to find postdocs with the entrepreneurial fire in their belly. That is a work of art, not an exact science.” Many of the applicants to the Patents2Products program, notes Dhaliwal, are traditional postdocs who are not a good fit for the program.

Advertising is also a challenge for Patents2Products. “You have to be very careful about where you market and what messaging you’re marketing,” Dhaliwal observes. “You tend to go to traditional places like the Chronicle [of Higher Education], or a similar outlet. But sometimes only traditional postdocs go to that location. In the second round, [we’re writing to] the PhD coordinators of the top 20 schools that work in the area in which we have the patent.”

Dhaliwal has also changed his messaging. He avoids saying that he wants a postdoc who will do entrepreneurial work. Instead, he says he wants an entrepreneurial postdoc who wants to work on an exciting project. “Because it’s such a new concept to a lot of people, the messaging has to be just right,” said Dhaliwal.

Another change in his marketing approach is that, rather than inviting postdocs to apply, he is asking them to call him to discuss the opportunity. This method is a quick way for Dhaliwal and the candidate to decide if the program and the postdoc sense a good fit.

At Cornell Engineering, a large number of PhD candidates have expressed interest in the Commercialization Fellows Program. But actual applicants have been harder to come by. “It’s a pretty big leap from [expressing interest] to saying, ‘I’m going to go ask my advisor if I can spend six months doing this fellowship,” says Schryver. “We assumed we had an awesome product, and the world would beat a path to our door.”

To combat that hesitancy, Schryver is having more one-on-one meetings, departmental meetings, and meetings with PIs whom he knows have people on their teams who are interested in commercialization. “We try to prime the pump a little bit earlier,” he says.

The more personal approach also increases the diversity of the cohorts. General invitations, he’s observed, tend to garner more responses from non-minorities. “There’s got to be a little bit more of a conscious inviting-in for women and underrepresented minorities, and that’s a priority for us going forward.”

Contact Dhaliwalat jdhaliwl@memphis.edu; Schryver at tps1@cornell.edu; Govang at ctl-connect@cornell.edu; and Smith at leslie@epicentermemphis.org.


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