By Corey Paul
Oregon State University changed the name of its Office of Technology Transfer on Monday, a seemingly minor step but one university officials call a major shift in philosophy that could also prove lucrative. The new Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development will take a more proactive approach in finding and selling research projects.
Better connecting higher education and research to the private sector is a huge issue for Oregon, commonly considered a shortcoming when comparing the state with Washington or California.
The shift at OSU leads to two new full-time positions and one part-time position. The department filled one of those full-time positions with the hiring of Dan Whitaker, who has started more than 16 companies, including Rogue Wave Software, Centralia Sawmill Company and Hotdata, all of which became publicly traded companies or sales to large interests. Whitaker will roam the university acting like an independent consultant for new business creation. The unfilled positions are for licensing associates that will help the microproducts and life sciences departments launch innovation into the marketplace.
Partly explaining OSU's new approach is the growth the school saw in its research portfolio as well as an increasing number of faculty innovations moving into the marketplace. In the last decade, annual research funding doubled from $138 million to $275 million by last year.
The university also has generated more spin-off companies that have landed venture capital. One of those, Home Dialysis Plus, landed $50 million in the first half of 2010.
Relationships differ, but most of the OSU spinoff companies financially benefit the university through an arrangement such as partial ownership or a licensing agreement, said OSU Spokesperson Todd Simmons. The innovators, of course, profit too.
Brian Wall, director of the department, wants more investment in the future toward the OSU Development Fund, a sort of gap fund that targets projects with other investment to pay for developments such as a prototype and make innovations seem less risky to larger investors. Wall also hopes to hire more staff to focus on building connections between other specific departments and the private sector.
The way Wall sees it, more startups mean more investment, which means job creation, higher incomes and new tax revenue.
"In my mind it's critical for state universities to help fill this role, especially with the economy where it is now," Wall said. "We could do a lot of good."
Corey Paul is an associate writer for Oregon Business.