Ideas With Impact

A FRIEND OF MY FAMILY is an emergency medical technician. Many years ago he came to my brother, a tool designer, with a problem EMTs faced in the field. He explained that he and his fellow EMTs had no good place in the ambulance to put an IV bag except on a patient’s chest, which seemed both unstable and dismissive of the patient’s experience. So, he and my brother created a workable prototype to address the problem. They even asked other EMTs to test the prototype in the field and received enthusiastically positive feedback.

But then the two of them ran into obstacles. First, securing a patent was expensive and time-consuming, and patent attorneys weren’t common in the rural area where they lived. Second and more important, neither was sure how to scale the product into a business. Uncertain of how to proceed, they abandoned the project. Their experience begs the question: How many other ideas fade away, not for lack of potential but for lack of support? Entrepreneurs call this precarious gap between invention and implementation the “valley of death” for good reason.

University administrators are becoming keenly aware of this gap, particularly as it affects their faculty’s research discoveries. After all, if professors have great ideas but lack the support to take them to market, their innovations will have little impact. But if professors have access to workshops where they can learn about startup creation, incubators where they can develop concepts, and offices of technology transfer that will help them with funding, patenting, and licensing—suddenly their ideas can take flight.

With universities doing more to convert campus-based innovations into marketable solutions, we wanted to delve into how commercialization is evolving in higher ed. In “Crash Course in Commercialization,” Don Rose and Cam Patterson, co-authors of a guide for university-based tech transfer, lay out strategies for developing and sustaining successful campus commercialization ventures. Not surprisingly, these strategies rely on business schools to provide savvy managers to help scientists write viable business plans and build successful startups.

In “State of Development,” educators leading commercialization efforts share their universities’ lab-to-market strategies. Julie Nagel, associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, tells us that if universities want their faculty to put the effort into turning their research into business opportunities, they’ll need to offer support each step of the way. “Our job is to make the process easier and identify the right partners to help faculty develop their technologies,” she says. “If faculty want to develop a vaccine that will save children’s lives in emerging nations, they’re not going to be able to do that by staying within the boundaries of their universities.”

That kind of support is crucial, especially to those like my brother and the EMT who might not initially view themselves as entrepreneurs. It means that faculty with great ideas are more likely to defeat the so-called valley of death, bridging that gulf between proof of concept and—if all goes well—a profitable and productive venture.