U of H’s Bose Focused on Bringing Innovation to Market
Rathindra N. Bose’s business cards read the University of Houston’s vice chancellor/vice president for research and technology. But he should’ve chosen the job title: technology evangelist.
You might not realize, he says, but the university is a top-tier research institution, graduating 300 PhD’s each year, with $150 million in research dollars, and a portfolio of 300 patents.
Despite a tight academic funding environment generally, Bose has managed to wrangle tens of millions of dollars to pay for a building-and-hiring spree to acquire the “tools and toys” that would attract the best and brightest to Houston. “Even at the assistant professor level, we are offering over $1 million in startup costs for their lab equipment,” he says.
Bose, who goes by “Roth,” has a PhD in chemistry from Georgetown University, and has one issued patent and three patent applications on cancer drugs and fuel cell electro-catalysts pending at the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. He landed in Houston after a stint at Ohio University, where he oversaw 3,500 graduate students and a budget of more than $35 million, $68 million in research programs, and a tech transfer office with more than $8 million in royalties.
I sat down with Bose recently to speak about his mission and its challenges at U of H, how the science of superconducting was born there, and his plans to build the university’s very own power grid. Here is an edited version of that conversation:
Xconomy: Was commercialization always a part of the U of H mission?
Bose: It was not quite here but all the ingredients were here. So now we’re focused on how you package those things and create a strategy so that people from outside see that this is a translational research university. First, for any premier university, you need infrastructure. Before I got here, there were new research buildings being built. I took a proposal to the board of regents to create a third building that’s been approved and we are almost there on the fourth one.
Then we figure out what tools and toys you need to really put in those buildings to really attract the best and brightest from all over the world. I asked our chancellor to allocate 60 new faculty positions for STEM fields; those fields that are of real interest to us. We’ve hired 40 of them in last year and half and we are making offers. When you’re going to hire this type of faculty, you need to spend money to set up their laboratories.
Those are individual research labs. We also want to create core facilities that many faculty members can come and share. Those are very expensive toys, like $3 million, $4 million, $5 million toys that you cannot put in everybody’s lab individually. We have just created a transgenic mice facility, to knock out genes in specific mice to do the drug development work, to understand the mechanism of drug interactions. We are working on creating a high-performance supercomputing center because this is an era where you’re going to be dealing with terabytes and terabytes of data, whether they are human genomic data or they’re business transactions or they are oil field data that are coming in.
How do you take that humungous information and mine those data in a way that people like you and me can understand? That’s in the process of being built. It might take $30 to $35 million to put that together but we can do that.
X: How much commercialization does U of H have? In which sectors?
B: We are identifying our top 10 technologies out of all the patents we have. We are doing well in health sciences and in the energy area. This year we’ll be getting over $15 million in royalty income and that will come from both pharmaceutical products and also from a variety of energy technology. My projection is that in next five years, we might be able to get $50 million year, from $15 million to $50 million. Compare this to when I arrived here two years ago; it was $8 million a year. We have had an almost 100 percent increase in two years.
For any technology that our faculty develops, the university is creating a fund to further develop that technology so that outside entities will be attracted to that technology. So it’s not just having patents but being able to show the folks that the patents indeed do work and these are the applications. We can do prototypes for engineering devices or we can do preclinical work for drugs. I’m thinking about $10 million or so that we’ll be investing, for investing and for bringing in outside partners: “OK, since you are serious about spending your own money, why don’t we add to your money?”
Also, in our Center for Entrepreneurship program, we train 200 undergraduate students here. We’re reaching out to them and giving them the earliest technologies and saying, give us a business plan. It’s a partnership between my office and the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Bauer College. That’s going to give me a lot more needed help.
X: What are the notable centers for innovation at U of H?
B: We have Energy Research Park, ERP. This is a 700,000 square-foot facility with 20 buildings. Some of these buildings we are finishing up to create incubators for different businesses. If I tell them [young startups using U of H technology] I can also give them office space, access to our labs, they could do further development that’s going to be very attractive to us. We just leased a space to a company for solar cells; this is our own technology, which has been licensed to some investors in Ireland. They’re putting their manufacturing plant in the ERP.
One of the exciting technologies that I’m working on is superconducting technology developed by SuperPower, a subsidiary of Furakawa Electric Company of Japan. This is a $60 billion technology, licensed to them that we are developing together. They moved from New York and they are working with our faculty, our graduate students, and postdocs side-by-side to really do mass production of superconducting wire and cables.
High-temperature superconducting materials were discovered here at U of H back in 1986 by physics professor Paul Chu. We have the Texas Center for Superconductivity. The university and the state of Texas have spent a significant amount of money to take that technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. So now we have a technology; we can produce superconducting cable. This is a nine-layer technology and it is 300 times more efficient than copper wire. There is very little resistance to take electricity from point A to point B; you don’t lose any power transmitting.
We want to have a demonstration project in that we can have our own power grid and wire up our own buildings and show the rest of the world that this superconducting technology indeed works. You have to put it underground and it still requires cooling, but it’s a very little amount and the price of liquid nitrogen nowadays is less than drinking water. We have high-capacity wires so the power grid’s not going to burn when you have high demand. Because these wires are underground, they are not susceptible to hurricanes and other disasters like we witnessed with Sandy. This is one of the newest technologies in the world and we have all the patents.
We’re in the planning stage to put up this grid. We would need $35 million to do that, so we’re trying all the possible sources of fundraising for this project. People have a lot of questions on this and if we can create a demo project here and people come and see that it is indeed working, then I don’t think I need to convince [skeptics] that it works. These cables create a magnetic shield, so NASA is interested in developing this with us.
X: What are the biggest obstacles in making U of H a research/commercialization institution on par with other large Texas institutions and others across the country?
B: The main obstacle is that the investment community is not coming forward and taking risks. Attracting venture capital is a challenge for any university. The internal challenge is that a handful of faculty is developing the technology; how do you protect this technology from any possible or perceived conflict of interest? We haven’t really had the teaching/research culture clash. Our regents are 100 percent behind our mission. We have a policy that any time faculty brings in royalty income, they get 40 percent of that, so there is an incentive [to innovate.] This is the place to be.