(Photography by Brian Baiamonte: Andrew Maas, assistant vice president for research-technology transfer at LSU)
The latest product, material, service or process that revolutionizes an industry—and, possibly, your life—may get its start on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge.
The commercialization of university research, or technology transfer, has become a key component of LSU’s mission not only to facilitate world-renowned research, but also to enhance the local and state economies. Innovation is recognized as a vital ingredient toward strengthening and diversifying Louisiana’s increasingly knowledge-based economy.
LSU has made an extra push to connect on-campus innovation with economic development beyond the university in recent years, partly in response to a 2012 report that found Louisiana was doing less academic research, including less research and development expenditures, than other states. LSU researchers also lagged behind their peers in other states in bringing their innovation to market.
“In the past two years, LSU’s Office of Research and Economic Development has worked hard to reinvent our tech transfer operations by hiring new leadership, streamlining processes and creating programs to incentivize tech transfer,” says Richard Koubek, LSU’s interim executive vice president and provost.
In July 2013, Kalliat Valsaraj became LSU’s vice chancellor of research and economic development. One of Valsaraj’s strategic goals is fostering and improving economic development activities and industrial ties. The next year, LSU hired Andrew Maas as assistant vice president for research-technology transfer. Maas serves as the university’s liaison to industry and the business community and promotes LSU’s research and its role in economic development. Maas also serves as the director of the LSU Office of Innovation & Technology, where he oversees identifying, evaluating, protecting and licensing inventions and copyrights developed through research at LSU.
Maas, who says building relationships is a critical part of his job, hit the ground running. He started by meeting with LSU’s deans and heads of departments.
In the first 11 months of LSU’s fiscal year 2014, LSU’s Office of Innovation & Technology Commercialization received 29 invention disclosures—documents detailing an innovation a university researcher has developed. In the final month of the fiscal year, after Maas’ meetings with faculty, his office received 13 more innovation disclosures to end the year with 42. In fiscal year 2015, 56 innovation disclosures were submitted.
In fiscal year 2014, LSU was granted 16 U.S. patents and two foreign patents. Of these 18 patents, 10 currently are licensed. For fiscal year 2015, LSU was granted nine U.S. patents and 11 foreign patents; 14 of these 20 currently are licensed.
Although the majority of invention disclosures come out of STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—disciplines, Maas says he “didn’t leave anyone off the list” when meeting with faculty.
“In the department of Musical and Theatre Arts, they are creating things that are intellectual property,” Maas says. “My job is to help them figure out how valuable that is.” Another example is the Louisiana notary law study guide, which LSU researchers developed. “That book has brought in royalties to the university and the faculty,” Maas says. “You don’t have to have a patent to monetize a piece of intellectual property.”
His office assists LSU researchers by evaluating their innovations and ideas, acquiring legal assistance for protecting their inventions, marketing, negotiating with industry for intellectual property, and licensing and other agreements such as confidentiality agreements and material transfer agreements. The office also serves as a bridge with commercialization partners.
“We’ve got world-class researchers doing great things, but they weren’t necessarily making the connection to bring it to my office to take it to the next level,” Maas says. “We’re here to serve them and to help them be more successful. That’s the part that’s starting to change, and that’s the part I’m really excited about.”
Building relationships extends beyond the research labs and academic departments at LSU, though. “The last step—going from patent to license—involves a market external to the university,” Maas says. “We have to engage with local and regional community players to let them know we’re open for business.” This means linking LSU researchers with business leaders who can sell their ideas in a global marketplace.
“Institutes of higher education are not in the business of making a widget,” Maas says. “If faculty researchers make a better computer chip, they’ll make a prototype. That’s when we go to local industry and say, ‘Do you want to put this computer chip in your product?’”
To encourage more faculty researchers to take their innovation to market, LSU created the Leveraging Innovation for Technology Transfer (LIFT2) program in January 2014. LIFT2 grants provide small proof-of-concept funds to support further commercialization of innovations and help establish data to support commercial feasibility, which reduces risk for companies interested in licensing it. Through LIFT2, LSU has awarded about $1 million in grants, with plans to invest a further $3 million in the program.
Shane Stadler, a LIFT2 grant recipient and physics professor, and his team of researchers have discovered a magnetocaloric material that may make air conditioning and refrigeration more efficient and environmentally friendly, with the potential to change the energy industry. The potential commercial impact of the patent-pending discovery is significant, and local entrepreneurs have already expressed interest.
Not all research results in commercialization, though. Maas refers to his “rule of halves.” For every 100 invention disclosures, about half will lead to a provisional patent filing and half of those provisional filings will be converted into a non-provisional patent filing. Of these, half will result in a patent. Only half of these patents are licensable and only a further half of these actually get licensed. Thus, statistics indicate that only 3% of individual disclosures end up becoming licensed products or processes.
Still, working with local entrepreneurs and businesses to bring these innovations to market is the link that helps grow the local and regional economy.
“If we can build more 15-person firms based on LSU technology, it creates what I call ‘sticky jobs,’” Maas says. “People will stay local, start local businesses and hire local people who have an LSU connection.”
CONNECTING WITH BUSINESS
Maintaining a good relationship between LSU researchers and local and regional businesses is vital. “In the past, local businesses were some of the biggest critics of LSU,” Maas says. “Local businesses found it difficult to work with LSU. That’s one of the things we’re trying to improve. I come from the startup world. To be successful, we’ve got to be proactive and build those relationships. To move the economic needle, we’ve got to change the culture.”
Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, says that change in culture is already evident in the business community.
“We have seen the culture and our relationship with LSU change,” says Knapp, who also is a member of the Louisiana Innovation Council. “President Alexander has set the tone that technology transfer is a priority, and he’s encouraged that from the top. We see Andy out in the business community networking and building new relationships. That level of engagement—staff leadership out actively looking for business partners—is the biggest change.”
Koubek adds that understanding the university’s multifaceted impact on economic development is essential to that culture change, as well.
“LSU is critical to the economy of Louisiana, both in knowledge transfer and technology transfer,” he says. More than half of LSU graduates accepted in-state job offers last year, ensuring Louisiana retains some of these highly skilled and educated knowledge workers. “Equally as important,” Koubek says, “are LSU’s efforts to improve the economy via innovation and technology transfer.”
Koubek, who served as dean of LSU’s College of Engineering for six years, says an example from more than 50 years ago illustrates the powerful impact that university researchers can have on industry and the economy today.
Benny Craft and Warren Hawkins, two professors in LSU’s petroleum engineering department during the 1950s, researched petroleum reservoir engineering and drilling methodology, which became the foundation of the department’s reservoir engineering courses. It is because of this research, Koubek says, that Louisiana enjoys the tax benefits from offshore oil drilling.
“Even today, the basic design of these courses remains the same, affording countless LSU petroleum engineers very successful careers,” Koubek says. “Through this example we begin to appreciate the power of academic research and how tech transfer can shift the economic landscape of our economy. This is the very reason why I believe higher education institutions must invest in a robust research enterprise.”
LSU’s academic campuses around the state, along with the LSU AgCenter and Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Koubek says, are working together to create an agile network of state-funded research and development institutions to “dramatically and rapidly solve some of Louisiana’s toughest challenges.”
Knapp says that an improved LSU-local business industry collaboration has tangible benefits for both parties. “It advances the practical application for researchers, but it’s also an important way for companies to innovate,” he says. “That symbiotic relationship works really well in a strong innovative ecosystem. We’re seeing a number of incubators, research park organizations, angel and venture funds and entrepreneurs who just love this stuff. The community has been ready for this environment.”