It’s 3 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, and a group begins to gather in the atrium of the Saunders Research Building. It’s the weekly coffee break for UR Ventures, where each week someone is assigned to bring in an edible treat; today, it’s an assortment of pastries from Cheesy Eddies — and it’s a big hit. As casual conversations drone on between members of the group, mentions of food are mingled in with words like “patents,” “licensing,” “start-ups,” and “research.”
The UR community understands well the aims and gains of research. Students commonly work in labs that strive toward scientific discovery, whether by investigating neurodegenerative solutions or by developing new vaccines. But far less understood is what occurs once a lab has actually discovered something. That’s where UR Ventures steps in.
“What UR Ventures does is take inventions that are developed or discovered by the University from research labs and bring those jobs to the marketplace so they can help people,” said Omar Bakht, the program’s director of new ventures and technology development. “A lot of times, labs will invent something, but that invention can be spread out and sort of a mess, or produced in a very specific way that may not be immediately applicable to the marketplace, so part of what we do is develop that new technology to make it more applicable.”
There are three general divisions within UR Ventures. The first involves the Technology Development Fund, which financially supports UR researchers in the commercialized development of their scientific breakthroughs. It takes a significant amount of money to prototype, test, and de-risk new products, and with this funding, UR Ventures can grant awards twice a year ranging from $40,000 to $100,000.
Senior Licensing Manager Weimin Kaufman is one of the people involved in this division of technology commercialization. She works specifically to evaluate new inventions and help researchers navigate with their collaborators in the process of licensing out their product.
“I reach out to different companies to explore collaboration opportunities and help negotiate the contracts to establish mutual benefits for each party,” Kaufman said. “I like interacting with people. My previous career just involved working in the lab and doing experiments on the bench […] I like being around all these people and discussing all these new discoveries. It’s very intellectually stimulating.”
The second division involves the patent process and market, which works to secure and protect intellectual property. When a University employee discovers something, a licensing manager within UR Ventures records the finding and then meets with the employee to discuss the discovery. If the discovery is both novel and marketable, an intellectual property attorney will determine its patentability and UR Ventures will then work to find an industrial collaborator to transform the discovery into a marketable product through a licensing agreement.
If a licensing agreement can’t be made, the third division of UR ventures creates a start-up company specifically for the product.
“This year, we are looking at launching a couple of start-ups, possibly three biopharmaceutical companies in the cancer space, and one in the neurodegenerative space,” Bakht said. “I’m also working on a company that works to simplify patient-reported outcome measures.”
UR Ventures faces a few challenges along the way.
“The number-one challenge is finding enough funding to develop a technology,” Bakht said. “Another challenge is finding the right people to help in the formation of a company.”
This is to say, if the right person isn’t there to step in as CEO, a start-up won’t even get off its feet.
“It turns out that, historically, this university has been very good at commercializing technology,” Bakht said. “Most of our success has come from vaccines. For example, some of the inventors of the Gardasil vaccine came from this university; that was our most recent success. In the past 10 years, we’ve had revenues on the order of $500 million, working with discoveries that include small-molecule therapies, large-molecule therapies, diagnostics, healthcare, medical IT, and so on.”
A common misconception about UR Ventures is that it is a general resource for the community, and as a result local companies looking for help often contact the program.
“If you’re an entrepreneur and come to us and say, ‘Hey, I’m familiar with one of your technologies and I would like to start a company based on that technology,’ we will help you start that company,” Bakht explained. “But we can’t help if you come in with an existing product or company. We’ll give advice, but that’s where we have to draw the line.”
UR Ventures doesn’t just stick to the office, however. At some point during their collegiate career, students involved in engineering seminars or senior design classes might find themselves in a lecture taught by Reid Cunningham, an intellectual property attorney for UR Ventures.
“The reason I’m wearing a tie today — because I never wear one unless I’m absolutely forced to — is because I have a guest lecture today,” Cunningham said when interviewed. “What I teach generally depends on what the professor is looking for, but most often it involves licensing, working with third parties, patenting, issues with start-ups, and things of that sort. It’s a little bit of UR Ventures, but primarily it’s just something I enjoy doing on the side, because I’m talking to folks who will all be out in the workplace or in a Ph.D. program in a year or so, so a lot of it involves the tools I think they will need to be successful.”
Technology transfer as a field is still relatively new.
“It can be a hard field to get into, but everyone around here is just working to advance science,” Intellectual Property Administrator Erin Miterko said. “These things can really change people’s lives, and with everyone driven around progressing those goals here, it creates a real community.”
Senior Intellectual Property Administrator Laura McKnight praised that community within UR Ventures.
“I feel very lucky that I ended up here,” McKnight said. “I am surrounded by really smart people every day, and I get to be a part of these efforts to develop things that never existed before.”
From classrooms to research labs, from researchers to collaborators, UR Ventures has had a profound impact on the promotion, development, and direction of scientific discovery at UR.
“This University is honestly just filled with genius,” McKnight concluded. “It’s a dynamic field, where no two days are alike.”