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A Sea Change in Academic Research: "Applied" Is No Longer a Dirty Word

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Fortune 500 companies have condensed their in-house research and development efforts over the past 20 years to focus on applied research directly related to their business goals. The technology mystique that used to be a significant component of a company's reputation, which justified employing large numbers of Ph.D. researchers and building company research centers, has faded. Bottom line budgets now drive company decisions about how, when and where to expend research dollars, all balanced against maximizing the possibility that those expenditures will translate into future increases in revenue.

So where are the inventors with research freedom to make novel discoveries and fuel the America Invents Act of 2011?

In contrast to the corporate R&D shift, universities and colleges have expanded their capacity for faculty research over the same period. There are many reasons for this development. One positive driver is that research activities in academics can be a source of revenue rather than an expense through extramural grant support. Unfortunately, the success of this model is dependent upon a critical resource: the availability of grant funds. Over the last 10 years in particular, funding sources have not kept pace with the demand of the population of academic research faculty. We are at crossroads where the academic modus operandi of the last 20 years is not likely sustainable over the next 20.

Overall, our research landscape has shifted in two important ways. First, colleges, not Fortune 500 companies, have amassed significant research capacities in this country, both in terms of employing highly skilled and qualified Ph.D. scientists and providing the necessary research infrastructure to support their activities. There is an astounding capacity for discovery and invention in our academic systems. With the shifting center of this activity away from corporations into colleges, there needs to be a new game plan for utilizing this research capacity in the future.

Second, grant funds for basic research are becoming more targeted towards specific goals. There is less interest in funding a scientist with a wild idea (i.e., high risk) because research dollars are a precious resource. All agencies and organizations that oversee the distribution of grant funds need to see productive returns from their financial support (i.e. low risk). And rightly so. These entities have specific goals they must meet in order to be "good stewards" of the funds they control.

In looking for new ways to fund research, one growing alternative is to commercialize academic intellectual property (IP) via faculty, university and business interactions. The goal is to provide value to a business venture while returning a revenue stream to support further faculty research, generate new IP, and continue the cycle. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this goal.

In 2009, I co-founded a biotechnology startup, Evozym Biologics. I was fortunate that the University of Delaware follows a progressive model for fostering faculty commercial activities through its Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships. The process was reasonable by current standards and I have had support and encouragement throughout; however, the time, energy and effort required for launching a startup poses a real entry barrier for most faculty considering such a goal. I look around at what my colleagues are doing and I see commercial potential in their work. But their basic comment to me about commercialization is: "Who has time for that?" There has to be a more efficient mechanism for basic research discoveries in academia to find focused commercial applications.

New approaches to commercially-enabled academic research are going to present organizational challenges for acceptance and implementation in both business and academics. However, cooperative incubator models between the two could allow faculty to assume balanced functional roles/positions bridging between them to facilitate technology transfer and revenue returns. Ultimately, the goal is to leverage the full research potential of universities to develop technological innovations that will benefit our future economy and society.

This is a sea change in which the principle of separation between business and academics is no longer viewed inviolate. In the 1980s, the idea of applied research in an academic institution denoted science that was more undergraduate technician work than faculty intellectual discovery. Now the word 'applied' is taking on a new meaning of scientific creativity with commercial relevance. And for faculty exploring these paths, there is a growing recognition of the importance of research entrepreneurism in this process. The sea is changing for academic research.