Taking Discovery to the Marketplace
Their motivations for trying to turn scientific discovery into a viable business enterprise are as different as their inventions. For Scott White, it was impatience with the standard business model. For Narendra Ahuja, it was partly a desire to follow his funding agencies' wishes, even if that meant going it alone. For Magnus Andersson it was the challenge.
The reasons why these Beckman Institute researchers took a plunge into the exciting and sometimes frightening world of the start-up company are varied and personal. A deep belief in the science behind the discovery was foremost, they say, but whatever the reasons, the journey from research scientist to start-up entrepreneur is not an easy one.
White, who along with Beckman colleagues Jeff Moore and Nancy Sottos pioneered self-healing materials, led a successful effort this year to start a company that is seeking to turn their groundbreaking discoveries into marketable applications.
- Scott White on the University's Research Park.
"I would say this experience has been the best education I've had in 20 years of working at the University," White said. "There are books out there where you can read about it but they don't really give you what you need to know on a daily basis.
"It's been a lot of fun and a lot of stress. There are so many things coming up on a daily basis that you've never had experience dealing with. You have to go with your gut and talk to people who have something to say, and then do it."
White and other campus researchers who are looking to take their discoveries to the market are much better off than someone in their position 15 or even 10 years ago. After failing to capitalize on valuable technologies that came out of University research, Illinois officials began pursuing technology transfer and intellectual property rights issues more aggressively in the late 1990s. The Office of Technology Management (OTM) at the University of Illinois was restructured in 2002, with more staff added, just about the time that the Research Park located on the south end of campus started to take shape.
Steve Wille, a Technology Manager at OTM who maintains an office at Beckman, said U of I researchers can now go from discovery to patent to start-up, all with the help of University or University-related resources.
Those resources include the Office of Technology Management, which facilitates technology transfer to the public, including help with issues like disclosure and the patent process. Illinois Ventures LLC is a start-up services company that offers help to would-be entrepreneurs regarding issues of financing. Finally, the University's Research Park site, home to more than 70 high-technology firms, plays host to EnterpriseWorks (EW), a 43,000 square-foot building that serves as the University's start-up business incubator.
"All of that is right here, right now," Wille said. "It makes it so easy for the researcher."
Beckman Institute Director Pierre Wiltzius said helping researchers turn discovery into an application and potentially a product is now part of the Institute's mission, with Associate Director Van Anderson overseeing that area.
"That is explicitly part of his job description, being the liaison to OTM and making sure the researchers - the faculty, the students and also the Fellows and research staff - making sure that they are really fully aware of how the process works." Wiltzius said. "The process starts with disclosure to figure out whether there is something there or not and beyond that there are different paths: there is licensing it to an outside company, a third party, and getting royalties, and then there is the path of forming a start-up."
- Beckman Institute Director Pierre Wiltzius
Several Beckman researchers who chose to start their own company have taken advantage of the Research Park and Enterprise Works. Ahuja has had a company called Vision Technology Inc. at the Research Park for several years while other Beckman faculty members involved in companies there include researchers like Jont Allen from Mimosa Acoustics and Yoram Bressler of InstaRecon. Numerous Beckman researchers were involved with the Intelligent Hearing Aid project, an innovation that was sold to a global hearing technology company called Phonak that had a presence at the Research Park when the hearing aid was being developed.
More than 50 companies have used the EnterpriseWorks facility in getting off the ground. White, who along with Sottos, Moore, other collaborators and investors including Illinois Ventures, founded Autonomic Materials, Inc. (AMI) in 2008. He said locating at EW and the Research Park is "crucial" to his company's early success.
"Access to the University is one of the strong suits for us," White said. "The rents and facilities are in line with what a start-up company can afford. Everybody there is on the same team in some sense. They want to see you succeed. They will bend over backwards if you need something, some expertise; it's a really nice set-up. They are there to help you succeed."
Larry Evans, a veteran of the chemical industry, joined AMI as CEO in July. Andersson and Gerald Wilson were the first two employees of AMI when the company was launched earlier this year. AMI is seeking to incorporate their self-healing technology as an anti-corrosive additive for coatings for large steel structures and, eventually, coatings for consumer products. With three employees and a cutting edge product, AMI is the definition of a high-tech start-up.
"It was Gerald and I who started this and we had to build a lab, we had to drive the technology forward, and just do what it takes," Andersson said.
"When you're a small start-up company like this, the operative word is multi-task," White said. "Everybody does everything because you're talking to investors one day and the next day you're mixing chemicals in the lab, then the next day you're planning out the next ten year's budget. Everybody has to be involved in every aspect of everything."
Evans, whose experience had him working mostly at large companies like AstraZeneca, said sometimes division of labor in a start-up needs to be done on the fly, such as when he took a phone call about information technology.
"I said just a second let me put my Director of Information Technology on and I looked over at Gerald and said, 'Gerald you want to take it?'" he said with a laugh.
For Andersson, a native of Sweden who worked first as a postdoctoral researcher with Beckman's Autonomous Material Systems group and then as a research scientist, the opportunity to join AMI was something he could not pass up.
"This was the challenge of a lifetime," Andersson said. "You know, it's sink or swim. When I first started there we didn't even know if we could go beyond three months. I've worked at Beckman for a lot of years and given tours and, with Scott, would meet with companies. It's just such a cool technology to be able to take that into the world. I knew the technology but the rest is just a blank piece of paper."
Perhaps that blank piece of paper is what scares off many researchers from going the start-up route. After waiting for something to develop with large, established companies, White finally chose to begin his own firm.
"I didn't see the progress in moving this technology from these great labs and writing these great papers and having everybody say this is great to something applied," White said. "As an engineer, that's the culmination of what I do. I want to go out to Lowe's or wherever and see a self-healing adhesive or paint. And it's frustrating not to see this make it there because it works."
Ahuja, a member of Beckman's Artificial Intelligence group, first went the patent route about a decade ago with his NiCam Imaging System that allows all of the objects in view to be in focus regardless of their distance from the camera. Ahuja said that at that time, the University declined to help fund the patenting process so he financed it himself and began a company to market the product.
Since then another camera system, the Hemview, has come out of the work in Ahuja's Vision Computing facility at EnterpriseWorks. The HemView boasts a 360 degree field-of-view in a hemispherical dome and is able to produce real-time, seamless images of an entire room scene, a feature which makes it advantageous for monitoring purposes, for example. It could replace a multi-camera set-up, such as security systems that require several regular pan/tilt cameras that may not capture all of a scene because they are pointed at one area.
"Those cameras have this sort of flashlight mode, where they see only so much," Ahuja said. "Imagine that flashlight expanding to cover the entire hemisphere and now nothing is beyond it. What we have is a seamless single image of everything. But this camera records everything. You can come back and search it for whatever. It will replace several different cameras."
Ahuja began his research with the Ni-Cam through grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense and it was partly due to their suggestion that the work be marketable that he took the start-up path. Ahuja is currently demonstrating the company's latest camera technology to potential investors. He said the fact that the University has a research park for fledgling companies may inspire reluctant researchers to take that step toward commercializing their inventions.
"The very fact that it's there makes people cross that hurdle of just doing it," he said. "Sometimes you say there is one more thing to do and you will not do it. But now there is a space and the people there are very helpful. I think they are truly helping."
The Office of Technology Management's Web site said it is "responsible for identifying, evaluating, protecting, marketing, and licensing IP developed on the University campus." Wille said OTM determines whether an invention or innovation is "patentable and marketable" and Illinois Ventures determines whether it will fund the technology or not. The Research Park's Web site said it can "help tenants with low-interest loan programs, workforce development training grants and in finding venture equity financing."
Wille added that all of the technology transfer resources - OTM, Illinois Ventures, and the Research Park - work together with the University's Office of the Vice President for Technology and Economic Development (OVPTED) that oversees and facilitates the transfer and commercialization of University-based technologies and intellectual properties. Wille said people from the different resources have regular meetings and share reports on new technologies.
"We definitely communicate a lot," he said. "Part of our mission is to make sure we're there when (the researchers) need us."
Andersson said being at EnterpriseWorks reminds him of his time at Beckman.
"Both places are just amazing: the infrastructure, the facilities, the people, they are both really, really great places," he said. "And they are so tailored to you - they say we can get it for you; people listen to you."
White remains a very active researcher on campus and at Beckman.
"I want to make sure the Beckman Institute gets the credit for being supportive of me in doing this endeavor," White said. "We have a facility-use agreement here that allows us to come up and use equipment and things like that. They are very supportive. The link to the Beckman gives AMI immediate credibility out there."
Wiltzius said technology development for the marketplace is very much in line with the Arnold Beckman philosophy.
"If you look at what the mission of Arnold and Mabel's Foundation is, it is also explicitly developing technology," he said. "There is very much a research aspect and an educational aspect but it is also supposed to support activities that might lead to development of new technologies, in particular in the field of the physical sciences broadly defined. He would certainly be proud of the things that are happening here."
White talked to many people, including Wiltzius, before starting his company. Wiltzius was asked if he had any advice for researchers considering the start-up route.
"It's hard work; don't go into it lightly because it's going to take up a lot of your time," he said. "But it can be very exhilarating and very exciting. You really are at the genesis of something that might change the lives of many people. Seeing how sometimes very abstract or complex topics that we research in our labs do connect to the lives of people and do connect with the real world is something that I find the older I get, the more important that becomes to me."
This article is part of the Fall 2008 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.