up next Brad Roth
Increasing Innovation and Entrepreneurship
By Jackie Ostrowicki
Looking out over Nebraska Innovation Campus, you can practically sense the creativity and ideas flowing.
Students walk together to get a cup of coffee. Workers swarm in and out of the newly constructed Scarlet Hotel. Faculty members teach classes and conduct research in buildings where giant panes of glass bring the outside in. Founders and would-be founders put their heads together in The Combine, an incubator for ag-tech startups. The sidewalks hum with energy, and the purple lights of the Greenhouse Innovation Center bathe the sky in an otherworldly glow.
The campus was designed to facilitate new and in-depth partnerships between the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and private sector businesses. That’s what makes it the perfect location for NUtech Ventures, the tech transfer arm for both UNL and UNK. Tech transfer is how research universities like UNL facilitate turning new inventions—and other innovations created in those institutions' labs—into products and commercialize them.
Dr. Brad Roth, NUtech Ventures’ executive director, has tall glass walls in his office that allow him a clear view across Nebraska Innovation Campus. “This is UNL’s flagship facility for innovation, and being located here keeps us highly involved with activity in the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he said. “As NIC grows and adds physical spaces dedicated to entrepreneurship and innovation, it’s going to explode with growth and opportunity.”
Roth, a geneticist, is bespectacled and approachable. He has always had an interest in discovery. “When I was a kid, I was surrounded by things like the NASA space programs and the amazing early advancements in medicine. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t fascinated by science and technology,” he said.
Taking Faculty Findings from the Lab to the Marketplace
Fast-forward to the present and Roth leads a 16-person team that does just that—takes discoveries in science and technology from the lab to the marketplace. “I like to say we connect the people in the lab coats with the people in the business suits,” he said.
NUtech Ventures has a six-step process that takes research to an ultimate goal of societal benefit and potential revenue. The process starts with a faculty or staff member submitting a disclosure form. From there, inventions are evaluated by a team who assess the potential for intellectual property protection, if there is a market for the product, and the potential impact.
“We usually have over 100 disclosures a year,” Roth explained. “About 70 percent have potentially patentable subject matter, and we’ll file patents on 40 percent.” Once a patent is issued, the invention is legally protected for 20 years, giving NUtech Ventures the right to exclude others from using it.
The inventions are then marketed to various companies. If a company decides to license it, NUtech Ventures works on the licensing agreements to transfer rights to the company. They also ensure compliance by companies who have licensed UNL products and manage revenue created by licensed inventions. NUtech Ventures’ revenue for FY21 was $6.5 million, which includes royalties from inventions, upfront fees, and reimbursement of patent expenses—any dollars that come in through licensing agreements.
“NIC is UNL’s flagship facility for innovation, and being located here keeps us highly involved with activity in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. As NIC grows and adds physical spaces dedicated to entrepreneurship, innovation and related programming, it’s going to explode with growth and opportunity.”
The Process of Protecting and Licensing Ideas
Cheryl Horst is NUtech Ventures’ associate director and an attorney. Horst has been with UNL’s tech transfer office for 12 years; she started marketing and licensing technologies and currently serves as intellectual property counsel. She is also in charge of the patent portfolio.
“I’m responsible for managing the legal activities associated with protecting, licensing, and enforcing UNL and UNK’s intellectual property portfolio,” Horst said. “Patents are extremely valuable. I think of them as currency for our early stage research.
An issued patent gives the University the right to exclude others from producing, using, or selling the invention. This is ideal for us, because we aren’t in the business to produce and distribute the technology ourselves. Patents allow us to transact with industry partners and startups, and provide the necessary protection for commercialization.”
Early stage research requires investment of additional time and money. Companies can be unwilling to engage if the technology cannot be protected from their competitors. Patents allow for this protection and help generate interest from NUtech Ventures’ commercialization partners.
And, NUtech Ventures generates a lot of patents. In 2021, the National Academy of Inventors and Intellectual Property Owners Association listed the University of Nebraska System as the 77th top academic institution worldwide in earning U.S. patents. The ranking reflects 38 patents granted in 2020 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to the University. UNL innovators were named inventors for 27 of the 38 patents.
“At the end of the day, commercialization has the potential to change the world—to better our lives through health, safety, and wellbeing.”
“I like to think of my role as contributing to something greater,” Horst said. “At the end of the day, commercialization has the potential to change the world—to better our lives through health, safety, and wellbeing.”
Promoting Entrepreneurship Among Faculty and Students
If you wonder how UNL fosters innovation and entrepreneurship, it’s evident in the number of private startup companies springing out of its supportive environment.
In 2020, 34 Nebraska start-up companies were assisted by NUtech Ventures, Nebraska Innovation Campus, and UNL Industry Relations. The annual economic impact of these companies could generate approximately $250 million in the state’s economy and create approximately 2,500 new jobs over the next ten years, based on national standards.
Nebraska Innovation Campus is the ideal ecosystem where big companies can be matched with faculty research partners and startups. One of those faculty startups, Synbiotic Health, was co-founded by Dr. Andy Benson. “What will incentivize big partners to come are spinoffs who’ve taken some of the risk and raised commercialization to a level where the big companies are willing to buy,” said Benson.
Benson’s startup is developing and commercializing proprietary combinations of probiotics and prebiotics with proven effects on the microbiome—and accompanying health benefits. They’ve hired two Ph.D.s, one of whom is a recent graduate. And the company has the potential to grow into a much larger one.
NUtech Ventures promotes entrepreneurship through programming and sponsored events. One such program is the Nebraska Introduction to Customer Discovery, a campus-based entrepreneurship training program. Faculty and students who are accepted learn how to conduct business development research around their product; it gives them their first dataset to make a decision on whether their idea is commercially viable.
“We teach participants to go out and interview potential customers and stakeholders, to really nail down that there's a problem that needs to be solved. And that somebody does care about it enough to pay for it.”
“We teach participants to go out and interview potential customers and stakeholders, to really nail down that there’s a problem that needs to be solved. And that somebody does care about it enough to pay for it,” Roth said. So far, five cohorts consisting of more than 120 people have completed the program; a sixth cohort begins in February 2022.
What is NUtech Ventures’ ultimate goal? “We want to maximize the value of faculty-developed technologies,” Roth said. “In some cases, that will be startup companies that grow and contribute to the workforce; in some cases it will be products developed from UNL research that contribute to quality of life. Ultimately, we’re contributing to the innovation ecosystem—and that’s what makes a significant impact in our community.”
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