A new director, strategic goals, program evaluation and funding requests have poised technology transfer at Washington State University to achieve its full potential.

“Part of our land grant mission is to get technology out to impact the people and commerce of the state,” said Jim Petersen, WSU vice provost for research. “We actively are working to increase that impact through technology transfer.”

To begin the process, the board of the WSU Research Foundation (WSURF) completed a strategic plan in 2003. The independent nonprofit foundation was established in 1939 to manage WSU’s intellectual property — its new research or ideas that might be eligible for patenting or licensing. WSURF works hand in hand with WSU’s Office of Intellectual Property Administration (OIPA), which first evaluates WSU research for its potential in commercial markets before passing it on to WSURF.

Director oversees OIPA and WSURF
Among the goals of the strategic plan was hiring a new WSURF director. After a failed search in early 2004, Petersen employed a search firm to help identify and recruit outstanding candidates. This was a success, and Keith Jones was to begin work Feb. 16 as executive director of OIPA and WSURF.

“His background and enthusiasm make him an ideal person for this position,” Petersen said.

“An energized WSURF/OIPA is poised for growth under new leadership,” said Bruce Jackson, chairman of the WSURF board.

For the past five years, Jones has been responsible for eliciting faculty life science-related invention disclosures, evaluating them and helping patent, market and license them at Virginia Tech. Prior to that, he was scientific adviser to one of the largest intellectual property law firms in the country, Lyon & Lyon LLP, in San Diego, where he worked on litigation involving key patents covering plant biotechnology. He has done scientific research as well as market development of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides for Mycogen Corporation of San Diego.

Jones earned his B.S. in biology from the University Southampton, England; M.S. in plant pathology from the University of Kentucky; and Ph.D. in plant pathology from North Carolina State.

Enroute to WSU to assume his new duties, Jones e-mailed that some of his broad goals include:
• implementing a professional intellectual property management organization that is responsive to the needs of the faculty and the university
• increasing the impact of research conducted at WSU through effective commercialization.

Strategic plan and evaluation
Jones’ goals address areas of the WSURF board’s strategic plan, which seek to improve internal operations (management, business operations, assessment, staff training, service to faculty) as well as the external impact of WSU technologies on the state, region, nation and beyond. Details of the strategic plan can be found at http://wsurf5.respark.wsu.edu/gen_info/Proposal.pdf, although the various dates attached to some goals have been delayed due to the length of time required to find the new director, Petersen said.

In addition to the strategic goals, Jones will be guided in part by findings of an evaluation completed last fall of technology transfer at WSU and six other universities. The evaluation was done by the Kauffman Foundation, which works with partners to encourage entrepreneurship across America. The foundation sought to identify ways it could best support technology commercialization.

Overall, the Kauffman Foundation was cautiously optimistic about WSU’s potential for technology transfer. This optimism was based, in part, on findings that WSU faculty are interested in commercialization of research and working with industry. They find administration supportive of these efforts.

Private commercialization and public good
Of some concern to faculty at WSU and two of the six other universities Kauffman surveyed was the question of whether collaborating with industry compromises a researcher’s ability to share work with colleagues. Similarly, at least one WSU administrator expressed concern that commercializing technologies developed at the university can make them less accessible for the public good.

“Our mission is getting technology out there for people to use, versus making a lot of money on it,” that person said.

But WSU has made little money from technology transfer, Petersen said. “As a land grant university, we tended to give our technology away.” While making research freely available is the right thing to do in some cases, he said, failing to do that has not been WSU’s problem. Rather, while some other universities make millions of dollars per year in royalties from patented or licensed inventions, WSU makes tens of thousands of dollars.

(Please see related article on this page about WSU research that explores aspects of the public/private research debate).

Joint pursuits with UW
Meanwhile, WSU and the University of Washington are jointly pursuing funding and support of its revitalized technology transfer efforts. The universities submitted a joint request for the state budget to enhance technology transfer. That request focuses on marketing technologies to companies in the state, on the development of projects to enhance technology transfer, and on enhancement of programs to facilitate the creation of companies resulting from university research.

WSU and UW also collaborated on a request for money from the U.S. Department of Commerce for a gap fund. This would support development of research projects that tend to languish in a gap — they are no longer basic enough to qualify for academic research funding, but are not developed enough to attract industry investment.

The request seeks $4 million, to be matched by state and/or private funds, for a five-year period from October 2005 through September 2010.

With these and other changes in the works at WSURF and OIPA, “I’m cautiously optimistic that we will see significantly more technology transfer at WSU,” Petersen said.