From a maker space to novel, streamlined intellectual property licensing terms to a forthcoming Web app for connecting students with mentors in the innovation community, several new initiatives are making good on plans to broaden the scope of University of Washington’s erstwhile technology commercialization arm.
These efforts, in various stages of development, reflect a mission that is “more about innovation transfer than tech transfer,” says Vikram Jandhyala, appointed the UW’s first vice provost of innovation last summer with a mandate to imbue nearly every corner of the university with “entrepreneurial thinking.”
“You can think of innovation as a pipeline,” says Jandhyala, sitting on a couch inside the new CoMotion maker space in Fluke Hall. “It starts with undergraduate students and goes all the way to startups, or people joining industry or academia. We’re trying to look at our entire pipeline, rather than just the final stage, which is ‘Here is a technology. How do you commercialize it?'”
Technology commercialization and startup formation were the main focuses of the Center for Commercialization, rebranded earlier this year as CoMotion in an effort to signal the broader portfolio of activities. While continuing those core functions—and transforming some of them with new intellectual property (IP) policies—-CoMotion and Jadnhyala’s office now lead a campus-wide push for innovation education at all levels and in all disciplines.
This broader mission comes just as the rich royalty stream that had financed UW’s commercialization activities for more than two decades dried up: A suite of technologies fundamental to the biotech industry, and worth more than $350 million to the UW over their lifetime, went off patent last April. Linden Rhoads, the former head of the commercialization office, called the day “Black Tuesday.”
But with CoMotion’s broader scope comes the potential for new business models and potential funding sources to replace the tech transfer’s traditional reliance on revenue from technology licenses and equity in spinout companies, Jandhyala says.
“I think that model is very challenging because one, you could do things which are not optimal,” Jandhyala says. (Indeed, an outside commercialization committee reported in 2013 that the UW’s past efforts to generate more revenue from intellectual property were driving up transaction costs for licensing, thus hampering technology transfer and hindering startups.) “Secondly, it’s very spiky. You can get a hit after 10 years—and you should do this, because you want to get those black swan events—but you can’t plan and build a business around something like that.”
Jandhyala says he’s worked closely with top university administrators to develop a new model with more funding from the central administration budget, industry partnerships, and, a couple years down the road, a request to the state Legislature for more support. Jandhyala says that the abrupt departure of UW President Michael Young to Texas A&M has done nothing to slow the momentum. Though he championed startup formation and a broader innovation agenda during his four years in charge, Young’s replacement, on an interim basis, is Ana Mari Cauce, who was closely involved in these efforts in her prior role as provost.
Jandhyala acknowledges that many of the new efforts are experiments that need to prove themselves effective to justify continued funding. “If we bring real value, we should find a way to fund it,” he says. “If we don’t bring real value, then we turn that part off.”
Here’s a closer look at some of CoMotion’s new initiatives:
Intellectual property. The UW is in the process of revising its intellectual property policies, but already CoMotion is implementing a structure for new streamlined agreements with companies like Boeing that sponsor research on campus.
CoMotion has developed what Jandhyala described as “pre-packaged IP” to help reduce the uncertainty and paperwork required to allocate intellectual property developed through industry-funded university research. The idea is being piloted through the Boeing Advanced Research Center, a new outpost in the mechanical engineering department to house Boeing employees for collaborative research with UW students and faculty.
Under the typical model, a company would make a research grant and then when the work was completed, enter into a separate negotiation with the university for rights to any resulting intellectual property.
With pre-packaged IP, “we provide the IP rights and agreement before the project starts,” Jandhyala says. “It sounds straightforward, but it’s never been done.”
The approach was developed within CoMotion, and the College of Engineering has signed up to try it out, with at least two other colleges showing interest, he says.
“This will really make it very quick for companies to say, ‘Here’s what I’m funding, and here’s the IP right I’m getting, and here’s the cost of the entire process,’—so there’s very little uncertainty left when ideas come out later, and you don’t have to renegotiate,” Jandhyala says.
There is a clause which triggers renegotiation in the event that a given invention turns into a huge money-maker—one of those black swan events. “We don’t want to see a Google come out and then not benefit from it as the UW, so that’s the reason for that kicker,” he says.
More broadly, Jandhyala says UW intellectual property policies—undergoing a broad review this year—must be more granular to reflect the different needs of different disciplines.
“We can’t have the same policy across the board,” he says. “Algorithms are very different from hardware coming out of a maker space, which is very different from deep biotech and drug design and pharma… We’ve treated them all the same in some sense, and now it’s time to differentiate.”
Contract engineering. Jandhyala says CoMotion is also working on normalizing certain contract arrangements between private companies and university units. For example, engineers from the UW’s Applied Physics Lab have spent thousands of hours working on a carbon-fiber hulled manned submersible for OceanGate. The company benefits tremendously from having this highly skilled, flexible contract engineering workforce. The open-ended contract engineering agreement was a first for APL.
“The industry connection is becoming more and more important, and that’s where we and the Office of Research (the administrative unit responsible for handling research contracts and grants) want to figure out best practices to reduce that level of anxiety or friction,” Jandhyala says. “You’re going to see some of these happening pretty quickly.”
Despite a long-term decline in public financial support, the UW remains a public university and is constrained by rules limiting the use of university resources for private benefit and preferential treatment of any one industrial partner.
“That’s what makes things more complex, but also very fair,” Jandhyala says. “So we’re trying to create that structure.”
Maker space. The 4,000-square foot maker space is outfitted with 3D-printers, sewing machines, laser cutters, soldering irons, electronic test equipment, hand tools, modular tables, white boards, and storage cabinets.
“More of our students want to learn what it is to innovate—not necessarily to do a startup, but at least to know what does it take to work in team and create a minimum viable product and have a market, and learn from that failure. Maker space is all about failure,” Jandhyala says. “It’s just a great place to do the messy creativity, which eventually leads to innovation—very early in the pipeline.”
He sees the CoMotion maker space as one node in a network across and beyond campus, including department-specific metal and woodworking shops, a maker space planned for one of the new dorms, and, possibly, another one in Startup Hall.
While the shops are often limited to students majoring in architecture or engineering, the maker space welcomes the entire UW community. “This is open to English majors,” he quips.
Eventually, Jandhyala would like to open it to the community at large.
Mentorship app. Jandhyala and three colleagues recently won a university grant to build a Web app designed to better connect undergraduates in need of mentorship with people in the innovation community.
These connections are made now through structured programs within CoMotion and other departments, but the approach doesn’t scale up to the university’s ambition of delivering entrepreneurship and innovation education and resources to everyone.
“If we have, let’s say, 7,000 people in the Rolodex and let’s say 10,000 students who want to meet them, how do we make that two-way connection between the mentor and the student at a time when the student needs it and at the time when the mentor is available?” Jandhyala says.
Jandhyala says the app will help make connections and coordinate schedules, and may include features such as a system that allows students and mentors to rate each other, privately. He says a working, scaled-out prototype should be available in the fall.