Seed Hatchery applied our principles, and adapted our structure and programming, in order to lead development with University of Tennessee Research Foundation and Memphis Bioworks around a novel cohort-based tech transfer accelerator called C3. We’ll talk a lot more about C3 and related local efforts in an upcoming post, but first want to explain a bit more what tech transfer is, and why we’re working to accelerate it in Memphis.
Ever heard of Gatorade?
Gatorade is currently manufactured by PepsiCo and distributed in over 80 countries. It has even had its own Gatorade Sports Science Institute since 1985 for research and development. It’s the number one sports drink globally per retail sales, and the official sports drink of the NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR and US Soccer Federation. No doubt you’ve bought your own share of Gatorade, whether for a workout, a sick child, an evening of excess or an infamous post-victory Gatorade shower.
But let’s step back in time for a moment.
Dr. Robert Cade, a nephrologist who studied the physiology of exercise, accepted an assistant professor position at the University of Florida School of Medicine in 1961. Four years later he and a team of fellow researchers were approached by an assistant football coach – that would be a Gator assistant coach – asking why his players were suffering from heat-related illnesses.
The researchers determined that fluids and electrolytes were lost by the athletes when they sweat, and the carbohydrates burned for energy weren’t replenished. They used their findings to concoct a beverage of water, electrolytes and carbohydrates- the drink was initially used exclusively for the Gator football players, but once the team started winning and touting the assistance of their “Gatorade,” the product’s commercial potential to a broader market outside of the university was clear.
Invented in a research institution–> commercialized off campus = tech transfer
A product was researched and developed that solved a problem, and demand for that product skyrocketed. If this was the story of a startup company it would certainly herald success. But we’re talking about science and technology that was born in a university lab by faculty researchers. Dr. Cade and his colleagues set out to help the home team, not launch the world’s most popular sports drink.
So who was going to manufacture Gatorade? Where would it be sold? Did the formula need to be tweaked? How much would it cost? What was the go to market strategy? What about patents? How would the University of Florida hand their product off, and what would they receive in return?
This is a story of tech transfer. A science or technology invented at a research institution finding life – and profit – in a broader off-campus market. In this case, shortly after the 1967 Orange Bowl Dr. Cade entered into an agreement with Stokely-Van Camp granting the company rights to manufacture and sell Gatorade in the United States. Soon S-VC tested alternate flavors and revised the formula in order to satisfy federal standards and consumers’ palates. In the 1970s legal questions arose over the researchers’ rights to their formula as they were working under a federal grant; the University of Florida also claimed partial ownership and was awarded a 20% share of Gatorade’s royalties.
Opportunity lies ahead for Memphis and Tennessee
Of course not every institution has a Gatorade, and tech transfer is pretty complex. Rarely does an invention have Gatorade’s obvious path to market (or a mass market appeal at all); typically a tech transfer expert is brought in to produce a commercial analysis of current research in order to determine its potential viability in a broader market.
Yet there is significant reason to proactively approach the tech transfer issue. According to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, from 2006 to 2010 our state saw a 38% increase in research expenditures and a 66% increase in U.S. patents issued. However, in-state startups formed as a result of research grew by only 16% and licensing revenue actually dipped 16% during that same time period. Tennessee is currently in the top 10 of states with regard to research dollars granted, but in the bottom 10 for commercialization of that research. We can see that as a challenge, or as opportunity.
LaunchTennessee, an initiative of the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, involves a 5 year strategic plan to make Tennessee a national innovation leader, drive economic growth and create high-quality jobs. Commercializing institutional research is a major element of the plan, and will be supported by metrics. While Oak Ridge National Lab receives the lion’s share of Tennessee’s research dollars, funding is also allocated to Vanderbilt, St. Jude, University of Memphis and University of Tennessee. For Memphis this means St. Jude, the U of M (including their FedEx Institute of Technology) and UT Health Science Center.
Just what is happening in Memphis research institutions? At UTHSC, for example, nanotechnology is being studied as a way to heal fractured bone faster. At the FIT you’ll find studies in intelligent systems, including psychological, biological and artificial. The science and technology being invented here has the potential to transfer out of its labs into commercial markets, stimulate local economic development and job creation, and positively impact the greater good.
This is why we want tech transfer to grow, and why we have been so involved in developing a groundbreaking cohort-based, mentor driven accelerator here in Memphis. In simplest terms, tech transfer means opportunity.