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November 20, 2013

UR Ventures ‘open for business’

Scott Catlin
Scott Catlin

The University’s Office of Technology Transfer has rebranded itself as UR Ventures with a new look, a new structure, and a renewed focus on technology development and commercialization. UR Ventures will provide the University’s technology transfer functions with an emphasis on getting research discoveries to the public through business formation and technology licensing. Scott Catlin, who joined the University as associate vice president for innovation and technology commercialization in April, talks about the recent changes and the office’s goals.

Why is it the right time to introduce UR Ventures?

I’ve been here about seven months now. Before I got here there had been two technology transfer offices at the University— one was for the science and engineering schools and one for the Medical Center and the medical school—and those were combined last December. That provided an opportunity for us to reflect on how we organize ourselves, and how we put it all together to be more efficient and better organized. Since I’ve been here, I’ve spent a lot of time out in the community and around campus, talking to faculty and entrepreneurs and investors. Being new here, I could really take the time to get feedback and reflect on what seems to work and get their perspectives on what we might improve. Are we really getting all of our great research out and in use, as we should? Being a research University and a not-for-profit, we have an obligation to get our technologies out and benefiting the world. We’ve done some of that, but there’s a general question about how we can do a better job of translating technologies so they are better able to get into the market.

fast facts boxWhat are some the challenges you discovered?

What came out of all that feedback were a couple of major themes. One was that, not unsurprisingly, many of our technologies are very early stage. While we’ve filed a lot of patents, and we have a sizable portfolio of intellectual property (IP), much of that technology is very hard to license or sell to a company. It’s at such an early stage that many investors and companies and even startups look at it and all they really see is a concept and a whole lot of risk. They don’t really see something that’s formed well enough that they can actually buy into in its current state.

Second, to develop a technology successfully, or to launch a startup, you want to match up good research with a good business team to carry it forward. If you don’t match up the right resources, the likelihood of success is much lower. Keeping in mind that 70 percent of our technologies are in the medical space, putting together the right teams with the right experience to carry it forward, to work with our faculty, and to have the best opportunity for success is especially challenging.

Third, like many tech transfer offices, what we had here was more focused on the IP and a bit more focused internally, so we weren’t really out in the community, engaging as much as you might like. It felt a little reactive, maybe a little passive—and that was some of the feedback I got. People either didn’t know what we did or felt like there wasn’t a high enough level of engagement.

Can you talk about UR Ventures and its new approach to technology transfer?

For the reasons I just spoke about, it makes sense to rebrand ourselves and start changing the perception by changing the name. Technology transfer, or OTT, was what we were always known as. Even tech transfer sounds a little passive—like you’re just handing something off without doing much with it. So we wanted to suggest that we were making a change, but a change in the positive direction of being more active, more open for business, more optimistic in some sense. We believe UR Ventures suggests those concepts. But we recognize that we’re building a brand. While we’ve made some promises and some changes along with the new name, we have to live up to the concept of being more active, more proactive, more engaged with the community, more responsive to our customers, and hopefully a bit more creative in how we manage what we do.

The other side of it, which we’re just starting on and is going to take some time, is more substantive. It’s a more “project- management” approach to how we handle technologies. There are a variety of different support systems, funding sources, and various resources inside the University or in the Rochester/upstate area that can help a technology or startup for a faculty member. The problem is that because most faculty don’t regularly do that kind of stuff, it’s hard for them to know which resources are the ones they need. Longer term we’re trying to get a better understanding for ourselves of those resources and then a better process and better relationship with faculty and the technologies to be able to help stitch together the right teams with the right support systems to maximize the opportunities that we have.

What are UR Venture’s long-term goals?

With the relaunch, we’re making a promise for where we want to go. Some things will take longer than others—the whole project-management approach and some tools we’re working on to do that, that takes time, but I think the mentality is the right one. I’ll also mention that part of that is incorporating a set of techniques called “lean startup” that we think will help both us and the faculty in the way we analyze and develop technologies. That’s a work in progress but it’s been done by a lot of startups in Silicon Valley, and we think it has real value to the way we approach our technologies by being more customer driven, getting early feedback, and iterating more quickly on ideas to move them forward.

The whole team at UR Ventures knows that we’ve got incredible researchers doing some life-altering and groundbreaking research, some of which has real potential—in both market value and in many cases, regardless of the monetary return, in the opportunity to relieve suffering, to save lives, and to change the environment. Those things are critically important and fuel our passion for what we do. Having said that, we need to look at this as a business, too, but we, as a university, have the opportunity to balance more fairly between capitalist requirements and more altruistic benefits to society. That’s really powerful and something we think a lot about.

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