Changes at UC San Diego Emphasize New Role as “Innovation Engine”

A new program intended to teach engineering and business students how to drive innovations from concept to commercialization reflects a new imperative at UC San Diego. The business of tech transfer, which generates revenue by licensing technologies invented at UC San Diego, is giving way to a broader mission for the university as an engine of innovation and as a training ground for entrepreneurs and startup leaders.

One example of the changes underway can be found with the Institute of the Global Entrepreneur (IGE), a program UC San Diego created about a year ago, just as the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center was unwinding its longtime operation as a tech transfer hub for the Jacobs School of Engineering. But the IGE is only the latest in a series of recent initiatives that are focused on boosting innovation and entrepreneurship at UC San Diego, which sees itself increasingly as a kind of farm club feeding the regional startup ecosystem with people and ideas.

How well these changes play out remains to be seen. The IGE only recently enrolled its first five teams (including one team led by nanoengineering doctoral candidate Rajan Kumar, pictured above.) As part-incubator and part-accelerator, the institute provides each team with as much as $50,000 in financial support over the course of a 12-month program, which could eventually become the curriculum for a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. The state of California provided $2.2 million last year to bankroll IGE programs throughout the University of California system, with funding for UC San Diego amounting to $300,000. The San Diego Legler Benbough Foundation provided an additional $500,000.

In some ways, the IGE represents a reboot of the von Liebig center’s mission to help commercialize innovations conceived in the engineering school. But the new program is casting a broader net, according to Sujit Dey, a professor of computer science at UC San Diego who also serves as IGE’s founding director.

For one thing, Dey said the IGE is seeking collaborators and innovations beyond the engineering school, particularly in health sciences and at the Rady School of Management, which oversees the IGE program in collaboration with the Jacobs School of Engineering. Dey, who founded the San Diego video technology company Ortiva Wireless, said he also wants IGE to encourage fundamental changes in the way scientists approach their research at UC San Diego by encouraging them to “look at the market first,” and to provide students with the kind of training in management, leadership, and entrepreneurship skills that startups require.

To avoid the trap of developing “cool” technology that has no market, Dey said IGE teams will be required to test their prototypes with would-be customers and potential strategic partners to make sure their innovations are relevant and have strong commercial appeal.

In this respect, the IGE and other recent programs at UC San Diego reflect a broader trend that has been under way for years at American research universities. As Xconomy Seattle Editor Benjamin Romano has explored in depth at the University of Washington, big research universities have been working to revamp their offices of technology transfer and moving to take a much more active role in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship beyond the traditional enclaves of engineering, computer science, and the life sciences.

At UC San Diego, this means being “very much engaged in the economic development of this region,” according to Paul Roben, who was named associate vice chancellor for innovation and commercialization at UC San Diego two years ago. To Roben, the university is an economic engine of “talent and technologies, people and ideas.”

Beyond the traditional academic mission of providing education and conducting basic research, Roben said UC San Diego has been expanding its mission to encompass innovation and entrepreneurship, “primarily because so many people out there are creating their own jobs.”

While UC San Diego has long served as a hotbed for local innovation and entrepreneurship (the Connect program in innovation and entrepreneurship started in 1985 as part of UCSD), Roben and Dey said many of the changes began after Pradeep Khosla was named chancellor in 2012. The changes also reflect a fundamental shift away from a core focus on patent licensing that has prevailed at the University of California for decades.

“I would say that 10 years ago, or even five years ago, that tech transfer was considered a revenue driver for the university,” Roben said. But licensing revenue from tech transfer deals amounts to only about $25 million a year. That hardly moves the needle in comparison to the roughly $1 billion in federal research funding that UC San Diego receives each year, Roben said. A new attitude taking root, he added, is that “the exercise of tech transfer should be to transfer technology and not to make money.”

This changing attitude led Khosla to create the new office of innovation and commercialization—and hire Roben—in mid-2015. Since then, UC San Diego has overhauled the office of tech transfer, and changed the terms of its tech transfer deals. “For our spinout companies, we now just ask for 5 percent equity, dilutable like everybody else,” Roben said.

Programs that started since Khosla took office include:

Accelerating Innovations to Market (2017), a program run through the new UC San Diego office of innovation and commercialization, supports faculty, grad students, and other scientists who are developing technology with commercial applications. The program provides 12-month awards of as much as $20,000 for software-based technologies, and as much as $50,000 for devices and materials.

Veterans Entrepreneur Initiatives (2017), a six-week certificated course to help veterans understand how to start a business, provided by UC San Diego and the City of Carlsbad. Another initiative is Veteran Ventures, an accelerator program for veterans offered by the Rady School of Management.

UC San Diego Biomedical Incubator (2017), a student-run incubator focused on innovations in medical technologies and healthcare.

Qualcomm Institute Innovation Space (2015), offers leased space and technical resources from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) to faculty startups, industry partners, and national laboratories. There are currently 17 resident companies in the 6,000-square-foot space on the second floor of Atkinson Hall.

The Basement (2015), an incubator in the basement of the Mandeville Center, managed by the UC San Diego Office of Alumni Community Engagement, offers business guidance from alumni and other mentors.

National Science Foundation I-Corps (2013), provides funding to UC San Diego, San Diego State University, and 65 other U.S. research universities to train qualified teams on how to systematically assess the commercial merit of their technology innovations. The I-Corps program at UC San Diego provides mentoring support and as much as $3,000 in funding for 30 teams per year.

Daniel Kane, a UC San Diego spokesman for the Jacobs School of Engineering, said all of the teams in the IGE’s inaugural class are comprised of graduate students, with collaborators across campus that include at least one faculty member. The technologies under development are:

—Solid-state laser technology for use in self-driving vehicles that relies on an unconventional phenomenon of wave physics called “bound states in the continuum.” The innovation would advance the capabilities of existing LIDAR technology, which measures reflected pulses of laser light to determine distances.

—Wearable batteries for sensors that are made of nanoparticle-based materials that are printable and stretchable. (A photo of team member Rajan Kumar, a nanoengineering PhD student who is leading the stretchable battery team, is at the top of this story.)

—Biomedical catheters and guidewires that can be used with MRI imaging, which relies on a superconducting magnet.

—Biomedical devices to prevent heat damage to the food pipe (esophagus) during heart procedures that use an electrode to quiet erratic electrical impulses causing arrhythmias.

—Precision medicine to prevent stroke.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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