UT Innovation Center gives grants for commercializing research

Tonya Chen

UT’s Innovation Center helps professors bring their research out of the lab and into the hands of consumers.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, shortage of funding, lack of business experience and focus on tenure and career advancement limit professors’ ability to bring their discoveries to market. Last year, the Innovation Center launched a grant program to address these challenges. The center has awarded five grants, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000, to professors for the purpose of helping develop prototypes into formed products, establish partnerships and attract venture funding.

Mechanical engineering professor Adela Ben-Yakar, received a grant this semester for her company, Newormics, which makes it easier to test drugs using roundworms. She said it is very important for those in academics to share their advances with the world.

“Publication is great, but to make something impactful for society, you need to bring a product to the market,” Ben-Yakar said. “I realized I needed to start a business so my research can be used by people, instead of remaining on paper.”

Ben-Yakar said the $31,000 grant she received will enable her to work on a next generation drug testing platform and establish strategic partnerships with companies and other universities. She added that her goal is to establish a Newormics facility, where customers can test their own drugs, within the next two years.

The most recent grant was given to biomedical engineering professor, Thomas Milner  for his startup, Spectrapol Imaging. The startup sells a microscope technology that allows viewers to see the molecular structure of living cells.

In addition to funding, the Innovation Center also provides resources to help professors understand the business side of commercialization. Louise Epstein, managing director of the innovation center, has built several programs to help professors who might be discouraged by their lack of business experience. He latest initiative is a collaboration with UT’s Masters of Science in Technology Commercialization program.

“We surround the professor with talent from the university and the Austin ecosystem,” Epstein said. “We will match experienced experts who want to commercialize technology with professors who need help bringing their research into the market. They will help professors with marketing plans, business plans, all sort of analyses.”

Bob Metcalfe, professor of innovation and an entrepreneur himself said too many professors are reluctant because they think they have to stop being a professor in order to successfully start a company. Epstein added that the Innovation Center tries to clear up misconceptions about what it takes to commercialize research.

“We want professors to understand that they don’t have to exchange their lab coats for briefcases,” Epstein said. “The professors can stay in their lab coats, and the Innovation center will find the brief cases.”

While universities constantly produce new designs and technologies, Metcalfe said not all research can be taken to market. The first step, he said, is assessing the viability of a business and deciding what strategy to take.

“We need to ask ‘Is this something people will care about?” Metcalfe said. “If we believe it’ll have an impact on the world, then we try to build a team around it.”

Metcalfe added that when analyzing UT faculty’s designs, the Innovation Center first determines the best way to help the faculty member.

“There are three questions we like to ask – Is this a feature? Is it a product? Or is it a company?” Metcalfe said. “If the answer is a product, you might want to sell the technology to another company. If it’s a feature, you might want to add it to an existing product. If the answer is a company, then we will help you start one.”