Tiny Massachusetts Agency Seeks to Leverage State’s $5.5 Billion in Federal Research Funds-Can it Succeed?

9/11/07

With its bevy of top-flight universities and hospitals, Massachusetts boasts a fire-hydrant-like flow of some $5.5 billion in federal research dollars pumping into the state annually. How can the state best help commercialize some of that research to further boost the Bay State economy? That’s the daunting mission of the three-year-old Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC), led by tech-transfer veteran Abigail Barrow.

The job is even trickier than it might sound at first: Barrow has to find a way to succeed with an operating budget of just $500,000 a year and a tiny team of five staffers, only two of whom are full-time. What’s her strategy?

First of all, Barrow explains, “We don’t actually do tech transfer.” That job, she says, is best left to the state’s universities and other research institutions themselves, either through their in-house tech transfer offices, or by bringing in outside professionals to help. Instead, MTTC works with the tech-transfer offices to help try to launch startups within the state. “What we do is try to connect all the dots,” Barrow says. “This means helping researchers with marketable ideas prepare their presentations and finding people locally who can help support the new initiatives.”

Toward that end, MTTC runs a seminar program for researchers about how to assemble the right team to commercialize their research. And it offers early, “proof-of-concept” funding to everyone from university undergrads to medical researchers and emeritus professors. In the last fiscal year, the agency gave out some $720,000 in such seed grants (funds that are not counted as part of its operating budget). Among the eight recipients in the latest round, announced this summer, was Scott Gallager, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who received funds to develop his idea for a new technology to detect toxins in drinking water. Another was John Frangioni, an oncologist at Harvard’s Beth Israel Hospital, who got “proof-of-concept” funding to help bring to market a new hand-held fluorescence imaging device for highlighting tumors during surgery.

“We work in all technology areas,” Barrow says. “We will pull together a small, select group to listen to a researcher’s pitch and give input.” Barrow says she tries to tailor these small groups to the technology in question, inviting angel investors, professional service providers, corporate attorneys, and maybe even potential customers, all of whom volunteer to help out. “The key,” she says, “is to try to get in at a very early stage.”

Even when everything goes right en route to the market, though, there’s an additional twist to Barrow’s challenge. Take the case of Illumina, the fast-growing biomedical firm in the emerging field of “personalized medicine.” Back in 1998, Tufts University researcher David Walt had the idea for the company’s seminal technology. Tufts still gets a revenue stream from the patent that helped launch the company. But, armed with California-based venture capital, Walt opted to headquarter the firm in San Diego. Massachusetts might get bragging rights as the home of the breakthrough research, but the $180-million company and its 800 employees went elsewhere.

Barrows knows the Illumina story particularly well because she came to her job as director of the MTTC after years working on technology transfer at the University of California at San Diego. “The story of Illumina is absolutely something we face,” Barrow says. “We can’t build a barricade around the borders of Massachusetts. And it’s exciting to see new ideas turn into vibrant companies wherever they locate. But there is a lot we can do by bringing in local talent to encourage researchers with great new ideas to establish their companies here in Massachusetts.” (Barrow says she can take no credit for it, but Walt’s latest startup venture, Quanterix, is local, based in Cambridge.)

Most recently, Barrow says, her agency has been trying to coordinate with other efforts to support the emergence of technology “cluster areas” within the state, both in the biomedical field, with partners like the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and the energy area, in conjunction with the state’s new Clean Energy Council. In high-growth areas like these, she says, clusters can at least theoretically serve as magnets for even more local investment.

Funded by the state legislature in two lump-sum stimulus packages in 2003 and 2006, the MTTC has operating funds to continue its work through the middle of 2009, as well as roughly $800,000 left to award in new grants. Until the funding runs out, Barrow says her office is working hard on all fronts to show legislators the value of their investment so they’ll continue the program. “The truth is our success rests largely on all the smart people we have around here doing smart research. They make this job possible,” she says. “We’re just trying to be the best catalyst in the process we can be.”

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