Academia Gets Into Bed with Business


Out of the lab, and into the marketplace! That’s the rallying cry these days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is spearheading an initiative to turn academics ideas for innovation into startup businesses by nurturing “proof-of-concept centers” throughout the U.S.

Inspired by business incubators, these entrepreneurial hubs are looking to turn academic research into commercially viable businesses. Universities are actively pursuing investors with ideas ready for harvest.

As Amy Salzhauer at Boston’s Ignition Venture tells the New York Times, “Many of the great ideas get stuck in labs because scientists don’t have access to the kind of ecosystem. This is a way to better harvest those ideas.”[more]

MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, for example, aims to ‘matchmake’ academics with a great idea and investors.

The William J. von Liebig Center, an early entrant in this space, launched in 2001 at the University of California’s San Diego campus. It has since secured $87 million in financing, created 180 jobs, and helped start 26 companies, including Mushroom Networks, developer of online video technology, and Biological Dynamics, early cancer diagnostic technology.

According to the MIT center’s co-founder Gururaj Deshpande, “It’s the way engineering was 50 years ago. They’d design something, and then hire marketing people to peddle it. You wouldn’t do that now without understanding the customer’s needs.”

While academic research sparking business ideas is nothing new, taking a more focused approach via proof-of-concept centers is gaining traction beyond MIT and USC at American schools including the University of Utah, Georgia Tech and the University of Kansas.

The federal government has traditionally contributed $50 billion to university researchers annually, but the monies have been allocated to scientific discovery rather than commercialization. The Obama administration is considering allocating $12 million among several institutions in 2011 to accelerate the results from proof-of-concept centers. Congress has yet to vote, but a House subcommittee recently held hearings on how to streamline university “innovation ecosystems.”

As for what kinds of products might make it from the academic lab into the commercial marketplace, consider this list: feeding tubes outfitted with micro video cameras to facilitate easier and more precise implanting; HemoShear, a device that decreases time and cost to test new drug compounds; a 3-D scanner that it hopes will enhance the precise fitting of earphones and hearing aids to the dimensions of the ear canal.

The Ivory Tower, it seems, is officially open for business—and it’s business, academia and consumers that stand to profit.