Center aids faculty, students in turning innovation into commercial success

Center aids faculty, students in turning innovation into commercial success

CIVET executive director Susan Engelhardt, center, reviews content for entrepreneurship course with students Lulu Li, Mohit Wani, Jeff Barminko and Shirley Masand.
Photo: Carl Blesch

A program to demystify the complex and often capricious process of moving technological innovations into the marketplace is taking root in the School of Engineering.

The Center for Innovative Ventures of Emerging Technologies helps Rutgers innovators – students and faculty alike – recognize the commercial potential in their work, understand how research findings wend their way to marketable products, and tailor research methods to maximize commercial potential. The center, known as CIVET, was established two years ago.

“Discovery will always be the role of university-based research,” said Susan Engelhardt, the center’s executive director. “But the university shortchanges itself and society if its discoveries simply end as published papers.”

Equally important is what role CIVET is not intended to fill: It will not duplicate the patenting, licensing, and partnering functions of the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization, nor is it looking to morph scientists into business management specialists.

Some researchers, explains Engelhardt, don’t recognize that their work has business potential. Others want to take their ideas further but don’t know how to interact with those who nurture commercialization efforts, such as venture capitalists and product angels.

“These are the gaps that CIVET is trying to fill,” she said.

The center rolled out its first formal educational offerings this academic year, with a class for seniors and graduate students on innovation and entrepreneurship and a monthly seminar series with guest experts discussing technology-based entrepreneurship. It also has been coaching faculty members who are considering technology transfer possibilities, guiding them through the process and showing them how they can present their work to impress business professionals.

CIVET was conceived by Martin Yarmush, a biomedical engineering professor with doctorates in biochemistry, chemical engineering. and medicine. He brought significant entrepreneurship experience to Rutgers from his positions at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I wanted to show faculty and students what they have to do at the inception of their research projects to eventually make their work marketable,” Yarmush said. “CIVET helps nurture the commercial viability of research before it hits the formal technology transfer process.”

The center is located within the Biomedical Engineering facility, a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship.  CIVET’s offerings and services, however, are available to science and engineering researchers throughout the university.

Yarmush makes a case for the importance of applied research that finds its way to licenses and company creation by looking at trends in research funding.

“Universities are quite adept at attracting funds from federal agencies, with more than $50 billion from sources such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation supporting university research,” he said. “Technology transfer funds such as licensing income and royalties are on the order of $1 billion. But the growth will not be in federal funding. There is tremendous upside in technology transfer, perhaps $5 billion if universities do it well.”

Anant Madabhushi, assistant professor in biomedical engineering, is among the first faculty members to pursue industrial collaboration with CIVET’s help. One of his opportunities involves a small private company developing digital pathology systems. Another involves a large public company developing software that integrates multiple sources of diagnostic information.

“I’ve learned I should ask the commercialization questions first,” Madabhushi said. “What is the market size? The cost-benefit ratio? If I change my research direction 10 degrees or so, might it greatly improve the commercial potential?”

Students have embraced CIVET’s entrepreneurship course and seminar. Jeff Barminko, a second-year doctoral student in biomedical engineering who is studying how stem cells from bone marrow can be delivered to injury sites to control inflammation, said the course couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I can see the need for this knowledge now, while I’m designing my research program,” he said. “If my research is going to have an impact, maybe I can make it happen faster.”

Course instructor Andrew Toole, assistant professor of agricultural economics in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, said he addressed how to start a new company that is based on a scientific or technological innovation.

“It was an engaged environment – there was an exchange of important ideas,” Toole said. “The students really seemed to get it.”

Ramsey Yunan, a fourth-year doctoral student in mechanical and aerospace engineering, seeks to build tiny robotic aircraft outfitted with flapping wings such as those found on birds and insects. He was employed as an engineer and technical consultant before starting graduate school. Still, he values the lessons he learns from entrepreneurs who are guest speakers at the biweekly seminars.

“I’m looking for direct, practical experience from people who’ve been there,” Yunan said. “It’s encouraging to hear about their successes, especially when they talk about their mistakes. It shows you can recover.”

CIVET’s upcoming projects include a web-accessible database of innovation expertise at Rutgers, for use within Rutgers and by outsiders who want to tap the university’s expertise. Another endeavor involves creation of the Rutgers Science and Technology Innovation Institute, which will house many advanced technology centers at Rutgers along with CIVET. The institute has been chosen as a showcase project for the next Rutgers capital campaign.

Engelhardt is also working with Diane Ambrose at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School-University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to establish an “innovation zone” at next spring’s Biomedical Engineering Showcase, an annual event sponsored by Rutgers, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Princeton University, and other New Jersey regional universities.

Corporations traditionally recruit talent there, but with large companies cutting back on hiring, students are looking for entrepreneurial opportunities to fill the gap. The innovation zone will help match upstart companies with students for potential research collaborations.