If you're looking for a way to boost economic growth in the U.S., start with some of the country's key assets: great universities, full of people doing excellent research. What could help significantly are new ideas and further efforts in the areas of (a) spotting the research that could have practical use, and then (b) helping it move to market, to address societal needs and generate growth.
We've done a pretty good job of harvesting research, but in an economic crunch, why not try to do more? To illustrate the upside, here are two stories of "shelf technologies" that got turned into startup companies -- and what it took to do it.
"The technologies are out there," says Jenny Corbin. And to start the process, she says, "You just have to look." In 2009, Corbin was studying part-time for an Entrepreneurship MBA at the University of Louisville. As part of the program, students develop ideas for businesses, and Corbin wanted hers to be in agriculture, because, as she says, "I eat, sleep and breathe it." She lives on a small horse farm outside Louisville and her job, at the time, involved supplier-contact work with farmers.
So she sat at her computer keyboard and Googled for tech transfer offices at universities with agriculture schools. Then she plowed through lists of available technologies, until she came to one that looked almost too good to believe: "The title said 'Horn fly vaccine.'"
Horn flies feed on cattle blood, and they are serious pests. Their biting can torment the animals to the point where dairy cows, for instance, produce much less milk than normal. Insecticide-bearing ear tags are used, but farmhands have to keep putting in fresh tags, and, says Corbin, even those are not optimum remedies.
The vaccine starves the flies away by blocking a chemical they secrete in order to draw blood. It had been developed at Auburn University by a veteran husband-and-wife entomology team, Eddie and Mary Cupp. In tests on cattle at Auburn, the vaccine had worked well. However, as Corbin learned, after speaking with the Cupps, they were brilliant innovators but not the kind who actively push their ideas to market: "These people are scientists. What they were interested in was research." Moreover, the Cupps had been nearing retirement age; they're now emeritus professors. A company that had shown initial interest in the vaccine didn't pursue it.
Since Corbin was not in a position to license the technology outright, Auburn gave her room to run by granting an option on it, for a nominal fee. Then Corbin's professor at Louisville, Van Crouse, put her together with other team members and coached them for business-plan competitions. They entered five and won four -- including two huge competitions, at Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin. Their winnings, counting cash prizes and in-kind assistance, totaled over $800,000. At Rice, they missed the awards celebration because they were busy meeting with angel investors.
Jenny Corbin today is CEO of an angel-backed startup in Louisville called TNG Pharmaceuticals. There is more work to do. The vaccine, branded as FlyVax, needs additional R&D and must pass U.S. Department of Agriculture field trials. Corbin says FlyVax is "about two years from the marketplace" but adds that so far, all signs are go -- thanks largely to the fact that "everyone has been great to work with," from the TTO at Auburn to the civic and business community in Louisville. Perhaps most important, farmers she has met with say they're open to a new horn-fly solution: "Everyone is excited."
Meanwhile, a former shelf technology in Michigan already has a global market. The product at first sight seems low-tech: little strands of steel wire, each the size of a toothpick, twisted along the length to look somewhat like a mini-drill bit.
In fact these steel "fibers" are being used to replace heavy rebar and steel mesh in reinforced concrete for roads, bridges, buildings, and other construction. Simply added into the concrete mixer before pouring, they save time and money at job sites, as crews can skip the pre-work of installing rebar grids in the pour spaces. And, since the reinforcing elements are mixed all through the concrete, they can deliver higher strength at less cost.
The fiber was invented by professor Antoine E. Naaman, an expert in concrete composites at the University of Michigan. Dr. Naaman's research in the late 1990s made a deep impression on a young master's student, Luke Pinkerton, then working in the lab.
Pinkerton recalls the lab-grade concrete being incredibly strong, "like super-concrete." Yet when the university tried licensing the technology, manufacturers passed on it. The research was aimed at critical applications like earthquake resistance, and used a super-high concentration of the fibers, "which you can mix in the lab but not in a concrete truck," Pinkerton says. "The focus just wasn't economically viable." Worse yet, Pinkerton's own contribution -- a machine he had built for making the fibers -- "could not make industrial quantities and failed every few hours. So the whole thing sat on the shelf."
Three years went by. Pinkerton graduated, took an engineering job, then quit to enroll in an MBA program at Georgia Tech where he entered (what else?) a business-plan competition. He won with a plan to commercialize the Michigan research. And through a complex route -- which included a return to Ann Arbor, assistance from the U of M, and further funding from the NCIIA (National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance), the state of Michigan, and a federal SBIR grant -- the job was done.
Pinkerton redesigned the fiber-making machine. His team also "ran some tests that hadn't been run before" with the product. They found that concrete with much lower fiber concentrations was still very strong, and practical for a wide range of markets. At various dosages it's been used in everything from sidewalks to hurricane-resistant housing to bank vaults. Pinkerton's Ann Arbor-based company, Polytorx, sells its "Helix" branded fibers across the U.S. and exports them worldwide.
Morals of the stories? "If you try to constrain research to be economically feasible from the start, you might miss out on some great things," Luke Pinkerton says. But that means "somebody has to adapt it for a market need, which takes persistence" -- and support. Jenny Corbin says "You've got to understand the industry; got to have the fit."
We in the U.S. need more stories like these. Right now, pieces of an infrastructure are available: the Kauffman Foundation's iBridge Network is an online source for finding shelved technologies -- and there are other similar models. MBA programs linked to new-business competitions are turning into giant launch pads for people like Jenny and Luke. If you want to connect with a founding team that has been through a competition go to iStart.org. The national Startup Act, introduced by Senators Jerry Moran and Mark Warner, includes new provisions for moving university research to market. Keep the shelf in mind when starting or building your firm.