Tech Launch Arizona: Taking Ideas to Market

Ford Burkhart

Of the 500 or so steps in making a computer microchip, up to 100 involve avoiding contamination.

One UA researcher has a better idea, a way to dramatically improve the cleaning steps.  He’s Manish Keswani, assistant research professor of materials sciences and engineering. 

But how can he prove that his idea to dislodge nanoscale particles from microchip surfaces is a good bet for investors? It’s not easy to get even good ideas to the market. 

UA assembles a top-notch team to launch faculty inventions

Happily for Keswani, he was at the right place at just the right time. He recently won an award through the UA’s Tech Launch Arizona (TLA) to provide data to show potential investors exactly what his invention will do for them. He and a grad student are working to produce what technology developers call “proof of concept.”

Meanwhile, TLA will protect his intellectual property rights as it helps identify companies that might adopt his technology. If all goes well, one of those companies will want to sign a license agreement.

Like many UA faculty, Keswani has secured patents in the past. But with support from TLA, he now understands how to interest investors. “It gives us hope for more opportunities,” he says.

Last year, the UA realized that it was far behind other universities in the complex field of technology transfer. It recruited an industry trailblazer, David Allen, as executive director and vice president of TLA and tasked him with taking the UA to the top tier of universities that package big ideas for companies both global and local.

“The University of Arizona faculty is very competitive,” Allen says, sitting in his office between the campus and downtown. “We want them to think beyond the research finding to the application. We’ll help them take an idea no one may have seen before and turn it into the basis of a product or service.”

After his arrival last August, Allen, who reports directly to UA President Ann Weaver Hart, sent out a call for inventions. Forty-six faculty members responded, and TLA selected 19 projects to support, including Keswani’s, after screening by industry experts. Other innovations that TLA will be talking to investors and company executives about include a new cancer drug, a water contamination sensor, a device for monitoring infection in wounds, and a way to produce bricks from mine tailings.

Launching products, as Allen understands from 30 years in technology management and commercialization, is an art form that includes managing costs and expectations and working with technology and business leaders, lawyers, venture capitalists, and “business angels” (high net worth new business investors).

Allen has designed what experts say is a sophisticated strategic plan to match up UA inventions with industry needs. If it works, companies that license UA intellectual property will embed it in their products. Then, the UA will receive a royalty based on sales and the inventors will receive a significant share of those proceeds.

As part of the plan, Allen’s team will build long-term connections between faculty and industry. “It’s next to worthless for UA to be granted a patent if it is never licensed,” he says. “Similarly, it’s an immense resource waste to start a company and then see it fold up a year or two later.” The plan will install license managers within research-intensive colleges and at the BIO5 Institute. “We are basically re-engineering most of the UA’s former commercialization and industry engagement processes,” Allen says.

But the risks have never been higher. “The amount of venture capital is down by half in the past decade. More ideas are chasing less money. New ideas command much less economic value than 10 years ago.”

Thus, he says, dreams of a billion-dollar windfall aren’t realistic. Turning a biology research finding into a new drug would cost hundreds of millions of dollars — and would have a one-in-a-few-hundred chance of success over 10 or more years. Even powerhouses that have done patent licensing for decades, such as MIT and Stanford, make only $40 million to $60 million per year on licenses. Colorado, toward the end of the decade Allen spent there, did slightly over $30 million in one year. The UA has received about $1 million per year from its inventions during the last 10 years. 

UA alumni will play key roles in exploring, understanding, and capitalizing on UA discoveries and inventions

Lewis Humphreys, TLA’s marketing and communications manager, says the UA will look everywhere, including to alumni in high-tech and other professional fields, to find top domain experts to help review ideas.

“Our profs will certainly be excited about their science-based inventions,” he says, “but our domain experts will help us align that science to forces of technology adoption in the marketplace.”

Inventors will remain centrally involved, Allen says, as their ideas move toward product status. “They want to participate as their baby is growing up,” he says.

“Yes, they’ll financially benefit, but that’s not the main motivation. Mainly they want to see the work of their professional life in use.”

Allen, who honed his own skills at the University of Colorado, Ohio State University, and Ohio University, will also oversee the UA Tech Park. The Tech Park, which has operated for 19 years and houses 7,000 employees and 50 companies, has a business incubator that provides space and business advisory services for startup technology companies.

Also part of TLA are the new UA BioPark a few miles from campus and the Office of Corporate and Business Relations, which will be the UA’s “front door” for companies, providing advisory services and links to University resources.

Most UA startup licensee companies will be in Tucson, Allen says, but a few may follow the lead of Ventana Medical Systems in Oro Valley, one of the UA faculty’s showcase spinoffs. Ventana, a maker of tools to diagnose cancer and other diseases, was launched in 1987 and acquired in 2008 by the Roche Group for $3.4 billion.

Allen says he’s “a self-proclaimed eternal optimist, an essential trait in this business.” He looks forward with enthusiasm to finding a business home for Manish Keswani’s microchip-making system and the many other inventions germinating in UA labs.