San Antonio — Academic research centers are perennially seeking new ways to get more work commercialized, from offices that are tasked with spotting marketable science to workshops meant to help scientists learn to think like entrepreneurs.
But the problem may be that scientists at universities merely have different incentives than researchers in the biotech industry, according to one recent PhD graduate. When Travis Block was working on his biomedical engineering degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, he and his mentors were most excited by discoveries that were unique or weird—regardless of their market potential. In his first industry job after defending his dissertation, the measure of success was different: the most reliable results received the greatest praise, Block says.
“If I found something weird in my new position, they’d say how many times out of 10 does it work?” he says.
hile academics are increasingly trained to think about the marketable aspect of their work, more needs to be done to help them think like industry researchers, says Block, who helped develop an experimental stem cell technology at UT Health San Antonio that was licensed by local biotech StemBioSys earlier this year.
“You need to get people excited about the industry side of things,” says Block now a senior scientist at StemBioSys. “If academia doesn’t get excited about that, doing research the same way industry does, it’s going to be struggling soon to keep getting funded.”
Block spoke during a panel at the Emerging Medical Technology Symposium, which was held in San Antonio earlier this month, with other scientists and entrepreneurs about how to turn more academic science into business partnerships. Most, if not all, research institutes make efforts to help their best and brightest commercialize the work they do, from technology transfer offices to incubators to business mentorship programs. For example, UT Health San Antonio and the University of Texas at San Antonio started hosting day-long seminars on grant writing and other entrepreneurial tasks, while administrators at the schools are pushing to create a biotech incubator and accelerator.
But the difficulties encountered by many academic researchers-turned-entrepreneurs are due to a lack of business knowledge and precision, says Mary Pat Moyer, who runs a life science contract manufacturing business, Incell, in San Antonio. Often, scientists who approach her aren’t certain if they own the process for manufacturing their product, if its shelf life is long enough to actually be sold, or if they’ve actually kept their trade secrets secret in the lab, she says.
“Bogus Academic Person Business Model” is the phrase Moyer uses to describe the situation. The manufacturing process is often considered to be of secondary importance to developing a concept, she says.
What it comes down to for Moyer: “Can your biowidget go in a box and does somebody want to buy it?”
Incubator and accelerator programs have aided other industries in San Antonio. In tech, the Geekdom co-working space has become the epicenter for dozens of young San Antonio startups. Since it opened in 2011, two new investment firms have started and an accelerator program launched this year.
Incell operates an incubator of its own for emerging biotechs, Teksa Innovations, but Moyer, who founded Incell in 1993, says she has long advocated for public investment in a type of incubator that could combine early research with biomanufacturing. The life sciences community in San Antonio has historically been too small or didn’t have the motivation, however, she says.
“San Antonio, we used to be the whiners: ‘We’re not Austin, We’re not Houston.’ We got over that. We’re not whiners anymore. We have assets. We can put those assets to work,” Moyer says. “When I first proposed this and we started working on this, we didn’t have the critical mass we do now.”