Universities around the country are launching initiatives to promote “commercialization” and “entrepreneurship”. But those terms cover a lot of ground. Initiatives that fail to tease out the differences between them are likely to fail, disappointing critical constituencies and leaving important opportunities fallow.
At Research Bridge Partners, we developed a framework that captures the topography of university commercialization and entrepreneurship. It is useful in making commercialization decisions, especially early in the process when path dependencies and lock-in occur. You need to know where you are starting to know where you are going.
We look at the commercial activity at a university along two axes: who creates an innovation at a university, and who owns that innovation. Here is our 2x2 university entrepreneurship topography framework:
Who innovates: as a university leader, you have different duties to students and faculty, duties that contextualize your relationship with them regarding commercial matters. In our framework, the left two examples were launched by students and the right two examples by faculty.
Who owns: the university has different claims on the innovation that gets commercialized on its campus depending on a number of factors – most importantly who funded the innovation, where the innovation happened, and what contractual relationship(s) the university has with the innovator. In our framework, the bottom two examples are owned by the inventor and the top two examples are owned by the University.
The stakes for you, as a university leader, are higher in some boxes than others. In particular, faculty-generated/university-owned innovation can be especially high stakes. Commercialization activities in this box have outsized potential to:
(Despite the institutional criticality of the upper-right box, it seems that a disproportionate amount of university effort goes towards supporting the lower-left box: student innovators/no university ownership. We are puzzled by this … but then again, we were not early investors in Microsoft, Dell, Facebook, or Snap.)
Let’s go more deeply into each box of the university commercialization landscape framework. As examples, because they have been well publicized, we will use company examples from Stanford’s entrepreneurship experience.
Lower-left box: Student inventors, non-university-owned IP
When it comes to students, most of us involved in commercialization and entrepreneurship seem to agree: the university’s education obligations are paramount. It is wonderful that Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy could come up with and evolve the idea for Snapchat while at Stanford, but Stanford’s core duty to them was pedagogical, not commercial – to the students, not to their innovation.
This box is filled with good news. Your campus and your local ecosystem probably offer an abundance of solutions and support. National partners, such as Blackstone and MassChallenge, can provide best practices, links to mentors, and potentially institutional startup capital. Also, alumni are waiting to be asked to mentor your students. There is a pretty good playbook here, including both curricular and co-curricular initiatives: entrepreneurship classes, incubators, business plan competitions, etc. Our advice is to implement as much of that playbook as possible, package these initiatives with success stories from your campus, and send the resulting student startups special delivery to the Development office for fundraising wins. (Be careful, though: this playbook doesn’t work very well for the other segments in the commercialization landscape.)
Lower-right box: Faculty inventors, non-university-owned IP
In the 1990s, Paul Romer, an economist, had an idea for an education tools company. Although this idea grew out of his work as a Stanford professor, the university did not have a claim on the underlying intellectual property. Romer formed the company, Aplia, in 2000 and raised $10 million of launch capital, which allowed Aplia to hire a strong team. Aplia grew quickly and was eventually bought by Thompson Learning.
Aplia is a great story – not only was it successful, it was successful doing something that advances the mission of universities (education), and the faculty member who started it went on to win a Nobel Prize!
However, this box can be dangerous. Here is why:
We love this box for its opportunity and flexibility, but as a university administrator, you need to make sure you gate it properly. Administrative conflict issues should be narrowed down early, and this won’t always be collaborative. When it comes to commercial work, most conflicts between a university and its faculty are due to ownership and use of IP. Calling out these conflicts is important. But when you do this, reach out as a colleague rather than with a reprimand.
When faculty who we work with seem to be roaming down this path, our message is: “Engage the university, because if you don’t launch this company well from the start, you’re killing your options. The world of autonomy you are picturing probably does not exist.”
Upper-right box: Faculty inventors, university-owned IP
One of us, Isaac, grew up on the Stanford campus, and he remembers dinner table discussions when Norm Cohen (Stanford) and Herb Boyer (Berkeley) were launching, based on their recombinant DNA and restriction enzyme technologies, what became Genentech … and with Genentech, the entire biotechnology sector. At the time, patenting the IP from basic research, not to mention putting that IP into a startup and spinning it out, was extremely unusual and not universally approved. Fast forward to now, and Genentech is the poster child for university spin-outs.
The university – not the inventor – owns innovations in the top row. This ownership creates hard obligations formalized in the Bayh-Dole Act and soft (but real!) expectations from other key stakeholders that the university will move innovation rapidly and effectively into the public markets. It also creates compliance, conflicts management, and other oversight obligations.
Unfortunately, this ownership position can put the university into an adversarial relationship with the faculty inventor. Although there is no way around these difficult conversations, some universities seem to have them more productively. These universities emphasize support over compliance in their relationships with faculty – acting as colleagues rather than cops.
This box is where Research Bridge Partners does most of our work. We have developed some counterintuitive perspectives. For example, we think that the trend is for universities to create too many spin-out companies, that many EIR programs are wastes of money, and that fast-track licenses can be a disaster. We will cover these perspectives more deeply in other blog posts.
In general, though, our core view of this segment of commercial activity: if done right, it should be a powerful tool to attract and retain outstanding faculty and directly advance the university’s mission.
Upper-left box: Student inventors, university-owned IP
Alphabet, Inc. (Google)
Alphabet, Inc., is one of the world’s most valuable companies, with a market cap pushing $1 trillion. Famously, though, when Brin and Page disclosed their search ranking algorithms to Stanford’s TLO, they were greeted with no fanfare and (if anecdote is to be believed) did not even make the office’s “top 10 list” for the year.
This box is hard:
A lot of value gets left on the table, here. Since, in our experience, few university programs are tailored to these inventors, and few administrators understand how to value the importance of these co-founders in licensing deals, undervalued or lost opportunities are common.
We handle this box by making the lab – not the IP – our unit of analysis. We look for IP-plus-post-doc combinations as the core of the spin-outs that we will help catalyze and invest in. This is not a natural act for most universities; in fact, it’s part of the value that good VCs with deep experience in academic spin-outs bring to the table in the markets where they operate.
One last point, about people. Our university entrepreneurship topography framework emphasizes that the most important action that a university can take to support entrepreneurship and commercialization, is to curate the university community. The common action that Stanford University took in all four of the example cases discussed above? It got those people onto its campus. It takes Cohens to make Genentechs. If you want Snapchats, admit Spiegels. For any university administrator, that’s job one.
by Dr. Lydia McClure, Isaac Barchas
As a university leader or a department head, you manage and serve creative PIs making world-leading discoveries. The coastal startup clusters have the capabilities - risk capital and (more importantly) commercialization talent - to drive those innovations to market. You need to bridge your most innovative PIs to the people and networks and capital sources that are as good at business as they are at science
The issue is that the tools that you have in your toolkit, as a heartland university or departmental leader, do not give you enough leverage on the problem. The key is to put your university in position to exploit the massive investment that the American economy makes in startups and entrepreneurship, nationally.
The university commercialization toolkit is limited and not very effective. Demo days (taking opportunities to Silicon Valley and inviting investors to view them) have started to look generic and now attract mostly low ranking investment professionals. Entrepreneur-in-residence programs (hiring business people to help filter opportunities on your campus) can produce a great result if this particular EIR happens to be awesome and happens to hit an innovation where she is a market expert … but the odds of that are pretty low.
Stanford and Harvard and the other schools that are most commonly held up as being "good at" commercialization are not good at commercialization because they do better demo days or have better EIR programs. They are good at commercialization because they are located in the densest concentrations of entrepreneurial capital and translational talent on the planet. Stanford's demo day is every day of every week. Its EIR program is Silicon Valley.
The risk capital available to turn innovation into a successful startup shows the scale of the challenge:
You could have Harvard's endowment, and you still wouldn't be able to fill those gaps.
But capital is mobile, right? Theoretically, Bay Area money can find opportunities anywhere in the country. And sometimes it does ... but not very often, because venture money is tied to people, and those people value their time highly, and burning two days in transit to and from your Big 10 or Big 12 or SEC campus is an expensive proposition for them, especially given the opportunities that they have at home.
OK, so can you hire translational professionals to do that work locally for your university? You absolutely should invest in great people in your TLO and commercialization and entrepreneurial support programs. But this is table stakes, not a bet.
The market rewards the best people with these skills really, really well. As in off-the-university-pay-scale and with-comp-structured-in-a-way-that-would-be-impossible-at-a-public-school well. So you are looking for people with rare skills who are willing to work below market. That's a tough ask.
Also, it's a question of scale. Think of the diversity of research at your university. Is one person or even one team going to be omnicompetent against that entire spectrum of technologies and market applications? Partners' Healthcare Innovations, the translational group associated with Harvard's affiliated hospitals, employs about 80 people in their innovation group, and that doesn't count their TLO or Harvard's other commercialization programs. Are you going to make that kind of investment?
Even if you do, it won't get you to parity with Partners'. It's geography again. Partners' is in Boston, with its at-scale networks of well-compensated people who can turn health innovation into billion-dollar companies. You cannot build that ecosystem from whole cloth.
As a result, although we have met fantastic and dedicated people in university commercialization programs, they alone will not bridge your commercialization gap. Some of us used to be university-employed translational professionals. We had some good wins. But we did not, in any structural sense, close the gap.
Why doesn't your university "do commercialization as well as MIT?" We have heard this question asked by more than one alumnus and state-level policy maker. A big part of the reason is that you're not in Boston with open access to its industry-specific talent and capital pools. And there is nothing you can do about that.
So you can't do it all yourself. Here is what we think you can, and should, do:
First, and above everything else, recruit and retain and resource great faculty.
The other thing about the commercialization success of the Bay Area and Boston schools, is that their PIs are really, really good at creating new knowledge. Stanford alone has 156 members of the National Academy of Sciences on its faculty. Not surprisingly, those PIs attract the most outstanding and ambitious students.
When partnered with strong translational professionals and capital, the innovation from those labs nucleates companies. The students from those labs graduate to help drive innovation into commercial products and services that create economic prosperity and make people's lives better.
If your main initiatives focus on faculty quality, you won't go wrong. Only a few percent of your faculty will end up as scientific co-founders of scaling companies, but that's all you need.
Second, remove barriers to commercialization
High-impact, scaling spinouts based on deep science from research labs: that's the objective.
University leadership can make this objective easier to obtain by breaking down barriers to commercialization. Two areas where you may have opportunities, are these:
We are not advocating using commercial metrics in lieu of academic metrics for hiring or promotion decisions. First, the schools that are "good at" commercialization don't do this, so why should you? Second, it's not clear that it adds much. In our experience, if an assistant professor has created a field-defining innovation that she instantiates in a patent, this will be brought up as part of her tenure review regardless of whether "patents" are a formal review category or not. Third, how good is your P&T committee at evaluating patent quality?
Third, create an atmosphere that celebrates and re-enforces entrepreneurial success among your faculty
Entrepreneurial activity at a university is contagious. To encourage this kind of virtuous contagion, here are some tactics that you should consider:
Many schools now have translational grant programs - catalyst funds and startup grants and the like - that provide $25,000 - $250,000 of non-dilutive grant capital to pre-commercial projects, as proof-of-concept or prototype funding. These seem to be expected now, and so you probably have to do it. On the margin, we would guess that they are positive investments. However, if you have $1,000,000 per year for this purpose, we would bet that you would get more payoff from three no-strings-attached awards to your three most commercially minded, high productivity PIs, than 20 awards intended to specifically drive towards commercialization. A tiny fraction of your faculty will generate almost all of the commercial value created at your university. Double down on them.
Fourth - and this is where RPB comes in - get leverage on scale
RBP is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that works with you to identify the faculty - usually about 1% of a university's PIs - who "look like" prospective serial academic entrepreneurs based on our proprietary model. Sometimes our model gives us a bogus target, and sometimes we miss somebody great, so we like to run our results past you. Usually, we end up with targets that have about 50% overlap with the PIs that deans and chairs would pick on their own, but much less overlap with the PIs whom the TLO would pick. The reason for this is that most of the innovation in most of the labs on most campuses is dark (undisclosed) and not visible to the TLO.
We can't replicate the access to startup networks, talent, and capital that those faculty would have if they worked in the Bay Area, but we can approximate parts of it:
Our goal is to get your best startups ready to compete successfully for the national-quality talent and capital that they will need to be successful. Yes, we do write checks through our program-supporting venture fund, and we offer other development in-kind. The way to think about our work, though, is that we bridge your best PIs to the people and networks and capital sources that are as good at business as they are at science.