A new University of Arizona center has been formed to ensure greater cohesion among the community, business sector and institutional inventors and offices promoting the transfer of ideas and technology to market.
Advanced under the charge of UA President Eugene G. Sander, TLA-Tech Launch Arizona represents both a major restructuring and a repositioning of the University's technology commercialization efforts.
The new UA entity is grounded in a two-part mission: to more easily move beneficial knowledge creation and inventions into the public sphere while propelling economic development forward in Arizona and elsewhere.
"Tech Launch Arizona is a dramatic step forward in how the UA contributes to economic growth," said President Sander.
"This effort will not only result in an expansion of the UA's technology commercialization capacity, but also create much more robust partnerships between the University and entrepreneurs and business leaders," he added.
Len Jessup, dean of the UA's Eller College of Management, said "a clear economic development imperative" is behind the center's creation.
"We want to better harness all of the discovery going on at the UA and to find ways to get these discoveries into the marketplace so they not only create jobs, but also can be translated into products, services and companies that can ultimately save lives and preserve the planet," said Jessup, also the newly named chair of the center's board of directors, which will include several other UA deans.
Tech Launch Arizona's trajectory is already riding on recent success related to an increase in inventions and methods born out of the UA, some of which have earned widespread recognition and utilization.
One such example comes out of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Eller.
Hsinchun Chen, who directs the lab, and his team developed the award-winning crime fighting analysis software, COPLINK, which was acquired by i2 Holdings Ltd. The company now employs about 100 people in its Tucson office, and IBM recently announced it has agreed to buy i2 for an estimated $500 million.
"An important goal of the UA is to help create and support an entrepreneurial spirit in Arizona," said Leslie Tolbert, UA's senior vice president for research. Tolbert was among the UA administrators who helped develop the center's blueprint.
"What we want to do is to create more impact for the public good," Tolbert said. "It is about creating a very strong connection among the community and the discoveries and inventions that the University’s faculty, staff and students produce."
A New Structure
Technology commercialization has a long, established history at the UA, with knowledge dissemination and innovation being among the institution's founding mandates.
With regard to public impact, benefits of such commercialization are manifold and include job creation and expanding education’s reach. Such innovation can lead to additional external funding for the institution.
But Tech Launch Arizona's structural model and implementation are new.
Under the new structure, UA offices and divisions related to technology transfer, licensing, prototyping and investment would be folded into Tech Launch Arizona, which will be led by an executive director who will report directly to Sander. Jessup will chair an eight-member search committee that is now ready to launch a national search for the new executive.
Tolbert said another key component is the center's external advisory group, which will be comprised of entrepreneurs and business leaders from Arizona and other parts of the country.
"This group is an important touch point for the community, an open door for providing input," Tolbert said.
Additionally, the center will expand the UA's proof-of-concept and prototyping centers and collaborate directly with corporations and business partners.
Tech Launch Arizona also will serve as a contact point for the Office of University Research Parks and the Arizona Center for Innovation. In effect, the center's creation will "expand the production of commercially viable inventions," Tolbert said.
Thus, the center will consolidate human capital and resources, make stronger connections with community members and business partners and also stand as a single beacon for such activities, she added.
"It should feel like a seamless transition as you harness ideas and inventions and license them out to a company or leverage them as the basis for a new start-up," Tolbert said.
Transferring Ideas Into Practical Benefits
UA inventors have already developed new approaches to drug delivery and treatment for various diseases and conditions, lower cost but more powerful optics fibers, holographic technology enabling three-dimensional moving images and an improved life-saving CPR technique, among numerous other examples.
A report on the UA's technology transfer activities Tolbert co-presented to the Arizona Board of Regents in April detailed an increase in recent years in invention disclosures, patents issued and the companies created based on knowledge and technology developed at the UA.
The 2010 fiscal year, which resulted in more than $1.25 million in revenue from licensing and options, closed with 64 transactions – a record for the UA. For fiscal year 2006, that figure was at 26 for licensing and options.
Some of the more recent successes at the UA include:
- Tucson-based Valley Fever Solutions was founded by John N. Galgiani, a UA College of Medicine professor who directs the Valley Fever Center for Excellence. The company is developing a drug that can serve as a therapy for Valley Fever.
- Also based in Tucson, Desert Beam Technologies, LLC is working to take terahertz wavelength sources in compact form to market. The company was founded by UA optical sciences professors Jerome Moloney and Mahmoud Fallahi, along with Stephan W. Koch, an adjunct faculty member in the College of Optical Sciences.
- For distribution rights, UA's Arizona Public Media licensed “The Phoenix Mission: Onto the Ice” to the Public Broadcasting System. The film was produced in conjunction with the College of Science’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
- Patricia Hoyer, a UA physiology professor, and Loretta Mayer, a UA associate affiliated with the BIO5 Institute, were issued a patent for their work toward designing a method to induce menopause in animals.
This type of work does not occur in isolation, but often requires that faculty members first land external funding to propel their ideas forward, then obtain a dedicated investment from the private sector.
Therefore, stronger linkages must be made between faculty and investors, which is one reason why the center will be closely aligned with UA's McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship within the Eller College.
"This is hugely significant, not just for the UA to become self-sustaining, but to fulfill the role the state needs the UA to fill in terms of economic development," said Jessup, also the Halle Chair in Leadership.
He noted that McGuire Center's faculty and students have had about 500 company launches to date, with an average of about a half-dozen annually.
Such activities are important for the long-term success of the University and the benefit of the state, he also said.
Jessup emphasized: "Fundamentally, this not only helps the University of Arizona achieve its land-grant mission, but also helps to fulfill what the state – and I argue, the country – needs, which is for the University to play a larger role, now more than ever, in economic development."