UW President Young Talks Commercialization, Startups, Criticism

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again, a longitudinal question. If I’m saying 18 started this year, next year, say 18 start again, some of which may actually have been incorporated this year, what we’re looking at is that kind of trajectory. Over time, that smooths out. That is to say, if they started four years ago as a company and actually became a real business this year, four years from now there will be a company that started this year and became a real business four years from now, and I’ll count it four years from now, I won’t count it this year.

But what seems to me misleading, and I’ll tell you why I don’t count it this year as opposed to four years from now: A lot of companies incorporate and set themselves up and then never do anything. You can look at some universities where you’ve got quite a few companies, but they’re really, honestly speaking, still shells. Now maybe they’ll come to a business and maybe they won’t. I’m more interested in counting when there actually is a sense there’s a business there as opposed to a shell. And I don’t mean shell in a negative way—It’s not a scheme behind it. It’s just that often they’ll have set up some entity that won’t really get its technology, get its marketing plan, get the first product and stuff—that’s the point at which I care.

By counting it that way, what we really are doing is trying to actually be conservative, not particularly aggressive in counting.

Who knows, maybe I had 24 companies start this year, but the only ones I really want to count are those that really have begun in some kind of business-oriented way.

X: There are also companies that look like they are UW startups—that may have been incubated in the UW’s New Ventures Facility—but aren’t counted because they don’t meet the criteria set out by the Association of University Technology Managers, which seem to make for less-than-clear communication on university startup activity.

MY: They do.

Frankly, we’re delighted to help the guy who’s going to start up a company using Carnegie Mellon [intellectual property]. I very much believe in the more kids in the playground, the more fun we’re going to have.

But it’s not entirely honest to say that’s a UW startup. It is in some sense. Sure, I could count it. But it doesn’t measure what I’m really concerned about, [that] the great work we do on this university campus does good. I’m not concerned about the money. I’m not concerned about who gets credit. I’m concerned about doing good. And that’s Carnegie Mellon’s stuff doing good. And that’s great. And if we can help facilitate that, I hope someday Carnegie Mellon will help create a company that will use our technology. And sometimes we have companies that use technology from a number of different places. And that’s all fine too. But what I’m trying to measure isn’t so much, have we provided some infrastructure for some guys to go out—although I do. I have a book full of metrics. What we brag about in terms of 18 companies is not by any stretch all I know about what’s going on, on the one hand. On the other hand, what the startups do measure—as the licenses do, actually—is something that I think matters, and that’s probably why we define it the way we do and measure it the way we do.

X: There are some critics who read the recent pronouncements about startup formation as the UW padding its commercialization resume a bit, at a time when it’s going to be needing to look for more money to support future commercialization activities in the absence of the Hall patent revenue, and also to fund capital improvements in New Ventures and things like the innovation district.

MY: I’m surprised there are cynics and critics. It shocks me.

I’m going to try to be polite about this—that’s kind of a silly criticism. And the reason I think I can say that with some confidence is that I worked really hard on commercialization and trying to get that ecosystem created at the University of Utah, and I’d never even heard of the Hall patents.

So I think to say that we’re doing this to pad our resume to get this is a little bit bullshit, just to be honest about it.

I’ve got a long track record of caring about this for all the reasons I’ve stated. It matters that we make the world a better place. And this is one of a number of vehicles for doing that. My history entirely belies the fact that the expiration of the Hall patents has anything to do with it.

So, God bless ’em, but it’s just nonsense.

X: Do you think commercialization and tech transfer activities—the doing good with the research that’s done here—should that be a financially self-supporting activity or should that be something the university subsidizes the way it subsidizes libraries?

MY: With what would I subsidize it? Tuition dollars? My guess is the students get a little antsy about subsidizing with tuition dollars. I think it’s a really good thing, and if I had world enough and time, I’d be happy to do it for nothing, but it costs money, and we’re in a time where we’ve had a 52 percent decline in our state funding. We’re 49th in the nation of state dollars per [full-time equivalent] student.

So I appreciate the notion that there’s a hell of a lot of things I ought to be subsidizing, and with world enough and time, I would. They’re all good things. But you know, we have to be cognizant of every penny we spend in every way.

So, are we going to let these operations sink when the Hall patents expire? … Next Page »

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