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Columbia University’s Tech Transfer Guru, Orin Herskowitz, on Turning IT, Biotech, and Cleantech Ideas Into Businesses

Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures, is sipping gourmet coffee at a bistro across the street from the Manhattan Mall, but he hardly needs the caffeine to amplify his excitement about the innovation scene at his college. Columbia Technology Ventures—the Ivy League university’s main technology-transfer initiative—has chalked up an impressive list of accomplishments ever since Herskowitz joined the office in 2006. “We get 300 faculty-submitted inventions a year,” he says, about 60 percent in life sciences and the rest in other technologies. “I like to say we have everything from iPhone apps to cancer drugs,” Herskowitz says.

Herskowitz has good reason to boast. The former management consultant has spent the last few years whipping Columbia’s tech transfer efforts into shape, instituting a host of new processes designed to speed good ideas to market. It’s working: In 2009 (the most recent year for which data is available), Columbia pulled in $154 million in licensing revenues—more than any other university—according to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). Columbia’s tech-transfer arm now spawns about a dozen startups a year. “Over the last two years, the whole university has come together around entrepreneurship in a way that feels new and energized,” Herskowitz says.

Columbia is one of the pioneers of technology transfer. The university began a formal initiative to spin out its inventions into the business world back in 1982—just two years after the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act gave academic institutions the right to patent and commercialize inventions. Over the years, technology transfer in New York has become much more collaborative, Herskowitz says. Not only are Columbia faculty members from different departments working together on inventions, but the university is now actively collaborating with nine or so other academic institutions in New York, including New York University, Rockefeller University, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Many famous products rely at least in part on inventions shepherded to market by Columbia Technology Ventures. Among them: DirectTV, iPod Touch, and the biotech drugs epoetin alfa (Epogen), etanercept (Enbrel) and omalizumab (Xolair). As for that iPhone app, it’s EarthObserver, created by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia. The app, released in December for $2.99, allows users to view detailed renderings of the ocean floor, icecaps, mountains and coasts. “It’s like Google Maps for the whole earth,” Herskowitz says.

But like most universities, Columbia has faced some challenges transferring good ideas into marketable products. The college was often slow to attract … Next Page »

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