Technology transfer

Technology transfer

Louisiana universities are making sluggish progress in academic research, compared to their peers.



A lot of lip service has been paid over the past few years to developing a knowledge-based economy in Louisiana. But a new report from the LSU System suggests the state is making only sluggish progress toward that goal, at least in the key areas of academic research and technology transfer.



According to the report, prepared last month for the Louisiana Innovation Council, Louisiana is doing less academic research than almost any other southern state, despite an increase in the amount of federal research grants awarded here.



What's more, the scale of research done here remains small, relative to the heavy hitters in the game, like North Carolina and Massachusetts. In 2009, the latest year for which data is available, the 16 research institutions in Louisiana collectively spent less on academic research than many universities in other states spent individually.



“It's hard for us to be a research triangle when Duke University has more R&D expenditures than everyone in the state of Louisiana combined,” says Nicole Honorée, who prepared the report. “We have tremendous potential but we have to keep in mind the scale of our activity in this state and make sure the expectations are aligned with where we are.”



Duke spent nearly $800 million in 2009 on academic research, as did the University of Washington, a state university about the size of the LSU A&M campus. By comparison, Louisiana's 16 research institutions—including private universities such as Tulane—together spent about $671 million during the same period. (Research expenditures are the most accurate way of measuring research activity because they reflect what is actually spent in a single year, whereas research awards or grants can be spread out over several years.)




Honorée, director of research and economic development initiatives for the LSU System, says the takeaway lesson from her report is that while Louisiana is producing valuable research that is being licensed and marketed—the all-important technology transfer process that is key in growing a knowledge-based economy—the state is still far below where it needs to be.



“This helps put in context just how much activity is going on here, relative to what other states are doing,” she says.



As with so many economic indicators, it's not that the story in Louisiana is all bad; it's just not as good as in other places. Between 2004 and 2009, for instance, research expenditures increased in Louisiana by 20%. But that was the lowest growth rate of any southern state except Mississippi, with which it was tied, and is far below the growth rates of Alabama and Arkansas, up more than 30%; Texas, up nearly 40%; and North Carolina, up nearly 50%. The state's research expenditures also lagged behind the national average of 27%.



Paradoxically, Louisiana's federal research expenditures were up more than any other southern state's during that six-year period. That means the excuse that federal grants from the National Institutes of Health are getting harder to come by won't fly. It also means other reasons are behind the sluggish pace of academic research.



The answer lies in part in the lack of industry-funded projects. Those fell off in Louisiana by 11% between 2004 and 2009, continuing a trend that started years earlier. Only 3% of all R&D expenditures in Louisiana are funded by industry, half the national average. Why don't more big companies fund research here? It's like asking the old chicken-and-egg question.




“We don't have headquarters here and we don't have big R&D facilities, so we don't get the kind of industry-funded research grants that help attract more industry,” Honoree says.



When it comes to technology transfer, the LSU AgCenter is, arguably, the poster child for Louisiana. More...

As a result, Louisiana continues to lag behind in turning its research into marketable products. According to Honorée's report, invention disclosures within the LSU System were down 21% last year over the previous year, from 121 to 95, and fell far short of the 160 or so that were projected to come out of the system.



Perhaps curiously, licensing agreements—another important indicator of tech transfer activity—were up during the same period. But the majority of that growth came from deals inked by the LSU AgCenter, which has had a lot of success marketing its rice seed technology, sweet potato varietals, and other space-age agri-technologies (see the sidebar on page 29). When the AgCenter is taken out of the calculation, the number of licensing deals that emerged from research at the other LSU institutions remains flat.



“About 90% of the income to the LSU System is generated by the AgCenter from its rice and sweet potato licenses,” Honorée says. “It's all coming from one place.”



TECH TIMELINE TRANSFER

It takes a lot longer to turn research disocveries into marketable products than many realize.

Year 1: An invention/discovery is made, sometimes after several years or more of basic research.

Year 2: An invention disclosure is filed.

Year 3: A patent application is filed.

Year 4: A commercial licensing agreement is signed.

Years 4-7: Product development, manufacturing and marketing generally takes place during this period.

Years 8-10: The product is ready to go to market.

While the AgCenter is a bright spot in the state's tech transfer arena, the big picture is a familiar one. Louisiana came late to the game and has only recently begun to get its act together. But building a research base that produces marketable products and attracts more research will take years, LSU System President John Lombardi says.



“Tech transfer is never a process that's easy to predict because great science may not produce profitable business activity quickly, or sometimes at all. And it is very hard to predict which great scientific discovery will turn out, years later, to be a base for a major product category,” Lombardi says. “This is why scale matters. The larger the research base, the better the chance that out of all the research performed, some items will become profit generators through tech transfer.”



That, of course, is why an area wants a knowledge-based economy, and why the findings in the report are so significant. Baton Rouge Area Chamber President & CEO Adam Knapp, who sits on the Louisiana Innovation Council, says people need to understand the fundamental relationship between research and tech transfer and how it all matters in growing the regional economy.



“If there is a new (research-based) venture, it's more likely to go into the market it comes out of, which is why we want a knowledge-based economy,” Knapp says. “The reason LSU is an important economic driver is because their discoveries should lead to new private-sector wealth creation.”

Editor's note: This story has been changed since its original publication.



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