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Higher Education and Business: An Alchemy for Growth

In today's challenging economic climate, industry and academia can no longer afford to work independently of each other.

2011 Directory
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Combining Research and Economic Development
At the University of Missouri (UM), economic development is written specifically into the system's mission statement. President Gary Forsee is the former CEO of Sprint; and Dr. Michael Nichols, who holds eight patents and directs his own tech start-up company, is UM's vice president of Research and Economic Development. It is no coincidence that his title puts the two together. "I've often joked at some of my talks that really what the title ought to be is `from the research to the economic development,'" says Dr. Nichols.

In his three years in this position, Dr. Nichols has grown the University of Missouri's industrial park portfolio from three to 10. Some of the parks are located near UM campuses in Columbia, Rolla, St. Louis, and Kansas City. One is on the Army's Ft. Leonard Wood in central Missouri.

"We're a company, basically, with a revenue stream of about $2 billion. That ranks us in the top 20 in the state," he figures. "There are those things that are academic that are done at the university system; there are also those things that are business. And so, a university today is really a hybrid, " Dr. Nichols noted.

Dr. Nichols has streamlined the sometimes-confusing system of technology transfer: "We've worked very hard to put together teams of people to commercialize these things. We have an IP (intellectual property) lawyer, a marketing specialist, and business specialists to work on these deals." Nichols' office has even developed software called Tech Value that helps the university determine whether a particular innovation offers licensing or commercialization possibilities.

An entrepreneur himself, Dr. Nichols knows it takes more than a good team to bring an idea to fruition. It takes money. So, impatient with traditional funding vehicles, Dr. Nichols and President Forsee developed several funding mechanisms. One is a series of proof-of-concept grants - "pre-seed" grants - for faculty members to bring their concepts to the stage where a venture capital firm or existing company might adopt the technology.

But Forsee and Nichols weren't satisfied at the pre-seed level. This past October, they announced the University of Missouri Enterprise Investment Program - a $5 million pool to help start-up and early-stage companies further develop and commercialize UM technologies. The Enterprise Investment Program is funded through a combination of state and federal dollars - some from Missouri's tobacco settlement.

"We're looking at about a $50 million return in five years," says Dr. Nichols. "That translates into thousands of jobs and billions of dollars worth of sales - new products on the market. We believe we are truly an engine for development for the state."

A Research Insurance Policy
Bill Destler became Rochester Institute of Technology's (RIT's) ninth president in July of 2007. He came to the Rochester, New York school with the mind of an engineer. He was dean of the University of Maryland's engineering school, taught electrical engineering there, and received his Ph.D. from Cornell, researching "high-power microwave sources and advanced accelerator technologies." He also claims to be one of the world's foremost collectors of antique banjos, attesting to his eclectic nature. It is no surprise, then, that this engineer and banjo collector would create a novel way to accelerate the movement of research down the pipeline to commercialization.

As in any pipeline, thought Destler, a blockage would retard movement, and he saw a big blockage: "The big barrier has been, for the most part, around intellectual property. Universities have said that, if we work on it, we own it." That has discouraged companies from participating in research projects, he believes, because once an idea has been developed, a company would be required to turn around and license the intellectual property they just helped fund.

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