Q&A With Linden Rhoads: UW’s TechTransfer Leader Brings VC Revolution to Campus (Part 1)
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and hound them again.
On top of that, when these researchers visit the university, we take them on a tour that includes visits with local venture capitalists who are familiar with their work, and can sincerely express excitement in their work. We can take them to meet CEOs of UW spinouts who can explain to them how we can facilitate their transition from the lab to a startup.
X: Are there any particular names you can point to in the past few months who have come on board?
LR: Not yet. But we’re integrated with department chairs in ways that this office never has been before. We’re trying to be proactive.
If you think about it, the point at which most tech transfer offices become involved with a researcher is at the point of an invention disclosure. So you get a disclosure, and then you do an analysis to the extent to which it’s material to the commercial universe, and if it is, is it protectable? So we want to work, under my direction, with researchers years before that point. We want to meet especially with our most prolific researchers, those who are commercially facing and already dedicated to doing impactful work. We go meet with them and say, ‘Talk to us about the next three to five years, since the most precious resource you have isn’t your research funds, it’s your time and that of your grad students. So tell us all the things you thought about doing and why, and how you vetted these decisions, and what you’re thinking you might write grants for in the next three to five years. That way we can have more information, and help you go through which of these projects might have the most commercial potential. We go through that white-boarding exercise, which is fairly analogous to Intellectual Ventures-guided invention sessions.
What we end up doing is saying, and this is a lot of heavy lifting for our office, we say let us find the members of industry who are most acquainted with what you’re doing and create a safe, non-disclosure environment in which you can discuss what you’re doing and get more information from them about what industry can use and would be excited about.
X: With a venture capitalist? That early?
LR: Yes, that early, and with venture capitalists. But not just any venture capitalist. We’re combing the nation for the venture capitalists who are truly aware of a specific research area. And people from industry, like someone from Intel or somewhere else. Let me give you an example. We might talk to someone like Alex Jen, our chairman of materials science, who has this incredible idea around thin-film solar, on organic material rather than silicon. He thinks he can get to 10 percent efficiency within a certain number of years, which is an incredible goal.
First of all, we want to look to someone in industry who can tell us if that’s really important, or whether its more important than being 9 percent cheaper to manufacture, or having really good stability in the environment for six-plus years. So let’s find out from industry what aspects are the most important things to them. Then we’ll let the researcher proceed with that information. We want to recruit the most relevant people from inside these companies, and it isn’t always a business development person, to get involved with our researchers many years before there is any intellectual property coming out. We’re hoping to get our really prolific faculty involved early with industry, and we hope to stack the pipeline of innovation. Years from now, we want that pipeline to be full of more commercially relevant innovation.
X: We’ve heard that your tech transfer officers are just a lot more visible on campus now.
LR: We are hosting meetings for researchers too. You’ll find all over campus that there have been meetings with a researcher, with people from industry, and a venture capitalist. We don’t do this in the hope that a license will come out of it, but that a relationship will come out of it. It will be such that our researcher will emerge from it with advisers who they can be consulting from, and getting input from over the years. We consider ourselves, in a sense, business development officers so our researchers have more information that they can use to proceed. They ought to know the state of the art in industry. So they can understand the relevance of their own work. It’s something most tech transfer offices don’t undertake. It’s a more proactive and longer-term approach.
X: You’re not trying to juice your licensing stats for next year?
LR: No, and let’s face it, in this economy, I’d be tempted to say something like even if we wanted to, we probably couldn’t do it this year. However, even with venture capitalists as hard hit as they are, and the economy in the terrible shape that it is, it’s a very different economy than the one we thought we were in when I joined this office. It’s a different climate, let’s face it. But with every crisis, there are timing beneficiairies and timing victims. If you’re a company seeking mezzanine funding, $15 million or $20 million or so and have substantial funding to reach your first customers, or maybe a broader marketplace, this is a very hard time. You’re a timing victim. No matter the advantages you provide over the status quo, there won’t be much adoption. However, if you’re a lot earlier right now, if you’re at the stage of convincing the investment community that if you put a couple million to work now, that in three to four years from now, you can be ready to go to the market at a point when it will be receptive again, that’s an attractive proposition. To the extent that venture capitalists still have funds to play with, certainly strategically it still makes sense to make those investments.