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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 financing for startup ideas, sometimes because it didn’t have the right contacts in the venture capital community, or it struggled to communicate the value of the intellectual property, Herskowitz says. “Now we’re experimenting with ways to reduce the time it takes to get deals done, and to increase the transparency of the assets that are available,” he says.

For example, Columbia Technology Ventures has recruited about 35 Ph.D. students for part-time gigs. They’re trained in skills such as patent assessment and market evaluation. For each idea that’s pitched to the office, a student fills out a four-page assessment. That helps staff members quickly generate lists of the most relevant business ideas. The faculty members who pitch ideas also receive copies of the assessments, which they can repurpose for business plans and marketing materials.

The student-fueled assessment program has helped lighten the load on the office’s full-time licensing staff, which often juggles as many as 1,600 active patents and applications at a time. “They spend most of their time negotiating. They can’t keep all the new technologies in their heads,” Herskowitz says. “The students take on a lot of that burden.” The program has been so successful that in January, Columbia Technology Ventures hosted representatives from 10 schools around the country, who wanted to learn how they could set up something similar in their tech-transfer units.

Herskowitz has made a career out of transforming unwieldy operations into efficient workplaces. He came to Columbia from the New York office of the Boston Consulting Group, where he worked as a strategy consultant. His clients—spanning industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to music—turned to him for new ideas to increase efficiency and cut costs. The challenge prepared him well for his current post, he says. “If you step back and think about the mission of technology transfer, it’s to move as many things to the market as possible,” Herskowitz says. “It’s not that much different than what any business faces.”

Many entrepreneurs appreciate Columbia’s intense focus on translating research into products. In 2008, Ilan Reich licensed microfluidics technology developed by Columbia engineering professor Edward Leonard. Reich’s New York City-based company, Vizio Medical Devices, is working with Leonard’s lab to develop more efficient ways to filter blood. The company’s first device is a portable machine that removes excess fluid from the blood of patients undergoing kidney dialysis. It’s now in animal testing, Reich says. His goal is to apply to the FDA for permission to do human trials next year, and to file for market approval by 2013.

“Columbia has been a terrific partner,” Reich says. “They helped us apply for grants, and introduced us to the venture capital community. They’re very deal oriented.”

Columbia Technology Ventures is slowly expanding its presence in clean technology, too. The office has launched one cleantech company in each of the last three years, Herskowitz says. One of its startups, Calm Energy, came from an alliance between Columbia’s computer science faculty and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The company helps energy firms deploy software based on Computer Aided Lean Management (CALM). The basic idea is to take machine learning and apply it to optimizing the energy grid.

Professors know Columbia Technology Ventures can act with urgency, slow deliberation, or anything in between. Herskowitz says his office often gets calls from scientists who are on their way to present medical discoveries at conferences. “They’ll call from the airport and say ‘can you file a patent on this now?'” Herskowitz says. “We do four-hour turnarounds.” At the same time, the office holds patents in core but unproven technologies such as quantum computing. “It will be a decade before anyone knows if quantum computing works,” Herskowitz says. “Columbia is patient. We file broadly and hold onto patents for a long time, so faculty members can continue working on them.”

Being in New York City, Columbia’s tech-transfer folks enjoy a great deal of support for their entrepreneurship efforts. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rolled out several initiatives to spark innovation. The New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC) has partnered with several universities to create the Urban Technology Innovation Center, for example, which aims to increase clean technology innovation in the city. NYCEDC also recently started the NYC Media Lab, which matches up companies looking for new media applications with academic institutions doing research in such technologies. And Columbia has won support for its biotech efforts too, winning a trio of recent awards from a public-private partnership known as BioAccelerate NYC.

You don’t have to convince Herskowitz that New York City is a hotbed of innovation. He is, after all, the consummate New Yorker. “I was born here, I’m the child of two lifelong New Yorkers, I’m married to a lifelong New Yorker,” he says. “I’m as die-hard a New Yorker as you can find.” And he’s a die-hard a proponent of the task he’s been given at Columbia. “Our mission is to move stuff out of the lab and onto the market. Then let the market work out the details.”

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