“True innovation starts with a great idea. For the University of Florida, great ideas start in its laboratories, where more than $670 million in research takes place each year,” says the narrator of the UF Office of Technology Licensing’s (OTL) introductory video.
For every $2 million to $2.5 million of that research, a new discovery is disclosed to the OTL where it is processed, potentially patented and marketed to established businesses and startups for a licensing fee.
“Basically, what we do is work with faculty, staff and students to proactively protect any new discoveries that they come up with and work to find commercial partners who can take those new ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace by way of products and/or services that ultimately improve the human condition and make the world a better place,” said Jane Muir, director of the UF Innovation Hub and associate director of OTL.
“The whole of our profession of technology transfer was created because of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980. What it gave universities was the right to take ownership of these new discoveries that they funded with federal research dollars and obligated us to proactively protect and market the technologies,” Muir said. “And the underlying reason it did that was to better the human condition. Unless these new discoveries are getting out and affecting peoples lives they’re not really having the impact that was originally intended. And without technology transfer, not many of them can do that.”
Before the Bayh-Dole Act, she said, there were very few federally funded discoveries that made their way into the market, but since 1980 more than 150 drugs can be traced back to universities, thousands of startups and jobs have been created, and the act has generated millions of dollars in economic impact.
OTL got its own start in the mid-’80s, Muir said. Since then it has processed thousands of technologies and licenses. In 2013 alone, more than 300 new discoveries were disclosed to the office and about 60 percent were then patented. OTL licensed 84 technologies and worked with businesses to option about 130.
“We process everything, and we don’t determine what fields those discoveries come from. That’s determined by the faculty because they are the ones that write the grants to get the funding to do the research in their particular area of interest,” she said. “But when those grants come into the university we do pay attention, because after they’ve done the research is when the discoveries occur.”
Those technologies are open to be licensed to qualified individuals who can demonstrate that they have a viable commercial plan to bring the technology to market. “If we’ve got somebody who’s never run a business and never raised capital and wants to license a technology we’re probably not going to go down that path,” Muir said.
OTL licenses out its technology on a royalty payment plan. For every dollar a company makes, they will typically pay a small percentage back to UF, which is how OTL makes its income to pay for its 23 staff members, though some positions are funded through grants. For many years, Muir said, UF was in the Top 10 in the country for licensing revenues, but it remains now in the Top 25 after a glaucoma drug went off patent, and still generates around $25 million per year.
“The amount of money that companies are spending on research and development has declined dramatically over the last decade, so when you look at how these companies are going to stay competitive, continue to develop their product lines and reduce their manufacturing costs, partnering with a university is a very cost-effective way to have access to these new discoveries that can ultimately help them add new products, reduce costs and improve what they already have.”
One of the other ways OTL gets its technology out into the marketplace is by helping to create startup companies, and it does that out of the UF Innovation Hub – which it is a tenant of – located in Innovation Square between the university and downtown. The Innovation Hub came about as a result of Muir learning about a pot of funding specifically meant for building business incubators in 2009. For about six years, the OTL averaged 11 to 12 new startups per year, but in the last two that number has risen to 15.
“Because we’re located where we are the number of large corporations is pretty nonexistent,” Muir said. “So these startups have been a big push of ours to take these new discoveries, further develop them and de-risk the technology so that they actually can get into the market. We know that these small companies – if they can get their start in an incubator – their likelihood of being successful is significantly greater. That was the whole impetus for me working with several other people to write the grant and build this building.”
But it’s not just about creating companies – it’s about bringing the right people together at the right time for the right plan and creating constructive collisions.
“What makes UF unique is that we have the OTL housed in the incubator, and we have this constant influx of smart, creative researchers coming into our office all the time. We also have entrepreneurs who come into our office all the time, and investors who come into our office all the time, and by virtue of being here in the Innovation Hub it’s really easy to create those collisions. Somebody comes in and says, ‘Hey, I’m interested in a medical device,’ and we can take them upstairs and introduce them to a CEO working on one. We believe that because of this ecosystem that we’ll be able to start over 20 companies per year.”
You can learn more about OTL and read up on available technologies at www.research.ufl.edu/otl/.