Full text of archived
|Report says scientific contributions of Local
universities measure up|
Kauffman Foundation cites
economic activity of many researchers.
- Rachel Melcer
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
- June 16, 2006
- Section: Business
- Edition: Third Edition
- Page B1
Critics who say Missouri universities and research
centers lag in contributing to the local economy are missing
the forest for the trees, according to a recent report by the
Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
It is a common misperception, said Lesa Mitchell, the
Kansas City-based foundation's vice president for
Economists nationwide typically use statistics from a
university's technology transfer operation to measure success
in turning research discoveries into revenue-generating
licenses and startup firms. The data are important and easy to
find -- but they miss a lot of economic activity by
entrepreneurial scientists who do end runs around tech
transfer offices, Mitchell said.
"Economists have viewed innovation simply based upon
what is easy to measure. . . . But it's important that the
community take a look at the bigger picture," she said. The
contribution of St. Louis universities is "phenomenal. . . .
There's a lot more going on than everybody thinks there is."
Washington University, in particular, has been
criticized for failing to capitalize on its wealth of
scientific resources. It received $388 million in federal
research grants from the National Institutes of Health in
fiscal 2004, ranking fifth among American universities. But
that year it created just two startup companies and executed
65 licenses or options on technology, lagging the other top
grant recipients, according to data from the Association of
University Technology Managers.
Those numbers, however, don't account for companies
formed without assistance from tech transfer offices, or
products created through consulting arrangements between
researchers and commercial operations, according to a study
prepared for the Kauffman Foundation by David Audretsch and
others at the Entrepreneurship, Growth and Public Policy
division of the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Germany.
Audretsch tracked 1,693 scientists at U.S.
universities, those who received the top 20 percent of
National Cancer Institute grants. He found that more than
one-fourth of those who were awarded patents also said they
started their own businesses -- a much higher rate than
indicated by commonly used statistics.
"Publicly accessible databases . . . represent, at
best, the tip of the iceberg of commercialization activities
by NCI scientists," the report said. "Scientist
entrepreneurship appears to be the sleeping giant of the
commercialization of university research."
Universities typically own discoveries made by faculty
in campus labs. Even the inventor must license the technology
through the university's technology transfer operation in
order to commercialize it.
But these offices typically are understaffed and lack
resources. They may become a bottleneck, obstructing rather
than encouraging the creation of new companies or licensing of
But there are ways around that process.
In some cases, a university may decide it is not
interested in a particular discovery and release it to the
researcher. Other technologies, such as those that came out of
the human genome sequencing project completed in part at
Washington University, automatically are made part of the
public domain. And some discoveries involve processes or
products that are not patented. All of these can be
commercialized directly by the inventor.
In St. Louis, the vast majority of startups that have
occupied two biotech business incubators -- the Nidus Center
for Scientific Enterprise and the Center for Emerging
Technologies -- were formed without direct involvement by tech
transfer offices. Yet, many of these firms collaborate with
university researchers, or include them on scientific advisory
boards. Some startups were created or staffed by university
graduates, who benefit from their professors' teaching.
This "knowledge spillover" may be a school's most
important economic contribution, Mitchell said.
Wayne Barnes, an associate professor of
biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Washington University
School of Medicine, said he created a company out of
technology that the university didn't want. DNA Polymerase
Technology Inc., which sells enzymes used in genetic tests,
has received more than $1 million in federal research grants
and turned a profit.
Barnes bought a building on South Grand Boulevard to
house DNA Polymerase, dubbed it the Inventery and began
renting space to other startups as a commercial incubator. His
company's researchers are able to share ideas and resources
with those at tenant firms Luminomics Inc. and Rapid
Barnes said he is a reluctant entrepreneur. He was
frustrated that the university chose not to commercialize his
discovery and said, "I just felt I had to do it rather than
let the opportunity die."
That is a common sentiment, according to Audretsch's
report: Scientists who lack university support are much more
likely to create their own companies, while those who receive
tech transfer help more commonly license their discoveries to
In both cases, it is important that scientists form
social networks and connections to the corporate world,
investors and other entrepreneurs, the report said.
These networks exist in St. Louis through incubators,
venture capital and civic organizations, and links among
science and business schools. The leaders of these groups are
connected, said Marcia Mellitz, president of the Center for
Emerging Technologies, but more effort is needed to include
Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton said he
encourages scientists to get involved. At a recent Foundation
for Innovation symposium, sponsored by the university, he said
its goal is to "as rapidly as possible, move the results of
research into the hands of people who can use it" to help
society. While the university's primary goal is basic
research, and not making money, its people and students should
contribute useful discoveries that can help the economy, he
One way universities contribute is by recruiting star
researchers, Mitchell said. These top-notch scientists
typically come with some funding as well as business networks,
established in other places they have worked, that can help
with new ventures.
They also can connect with local resources such as the
BioGenerator, an organization that seeks out promising
technology at research centers and funds early work to
determine its commercial viability. These initial
proof-of-concept tests or marketing studies can be conducted
before a company is formed and a technology transfer office
becomes involved, said BioGenerator Chief Executive Ken
Taking this type of early look at as many different
concepts as possible is key to ramping up commercialization
and company formation, Mitchell said.
"We've gotten too tied up in the role of the technology
transfer office as a central theme," she said. "We really need
to focus on the faculty."
PHOTO - Technician Lyubka Kirilova (left) and researcher
Milko Kermekchiev work on a project on the use of mutant
enzymes in human blood to do DNA analysis. They work in a lab
in a building called the Inventery, which is owned by Wayne
Barnes and offers space for biotech startups. Photo by
Kevin Manning Post-Dispatch
PHOTO - Wayne Barnes, a biochemistry and
biophysics professor at Washington University, examines a
slide after washing away the results of a failed experiment
into a new way of DNA sequencing.
Photo by Kevin Manning Post-Dispatch
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