After a little over a year under a new leader, Cornell's technology transfer strategy has changed.
It's not about making money but about building the local economy and getting the results of research out into the world where they can do some good, says Alan Paau, who became vice provost for technology transfer and director of the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise and Commercialization (CCTEC) in January 2007.
"If the evaluation of technology transfer is 'How much cash did you bring in last year?' it really encourages wrong behavior," said Paau. "We can probably make more cash if we license to more foreign companies, but is that the right thing to do in light of the regional needs? I not only want to take the results of our research and turn them into useful products and services for the public but also use them to help regional economic development."
Such a strategy still can pay off in the long run, he added, pointing to his nine years as assistant vice chancellor for technology transfer and intellectual property services at the University of California-San Diego. "When I was at UCSD the goal was never to make money," he reported, "but the program is now financially pretty rewarding."
So Paau has made CCTEC more business oriented, forging connections with local and regional companies and creating new programs to encourage local startups and draw in venture capital.
He uses workshops and networking to encourage Cornell researchers to launch their own startups. A monthly seminar and social event draws up to 30 science and engineering researchers and MBA students from the Johnson School. A short presentation focuses on an exciting new invention, but the emphasis is on lots of mingling before and after, in hopes that would-be entrepreneurs will partner with inventors -- ideally, to start new companies nearby.
"Johnson School alumni become very successful globally," Paau said. "Can we create an opportunity for them to stay here?"
For "opportunity," read "financing."
Conventional wisdom has it that venture capitalists like to start businesses in their own backyards. But Paau believes Ithaca can sometimes offer a better deal. "Many investors realize that Boston, Silicon Valley or San Diego [means] a higher cost of investment," he explained. "It's a hotter market, but that doesn't mean better technology. And we keep our eyes on the big picture rather than asking for a lot of upfront [licensing] fees and scaring them away."
CCTEC also invites groups of venture capitalists (VCs) to visit campus to hear about new technology from groups of Ithaca and Weill Cornell researchers and to network. "By putting Weill and Ithaca together, we get a critical mass of technology to encourage the VCs to come," Paau said. Participants arrive the night before and are treated to a dinner with a Cornell official as speaker, to confirm the administration's support for commercial outreach. Local CEOs are also invited to set up posters and mingle, subtly planting the message that "Here's another idea that some other VC invested in," and that getting a technology from Cornell is not difficult.
Sometimes new companies grow for a few years and are then bought out by a big company. If the buyer moves the operation out of Ithaca, it's not the end of the world, Paau said. Either way, the buyout can be cause for celebration. "The inventors, entrepreneurs and local investors have all made some money, and now they're talking to us to do something again," he explained. "If we had licensed the technologies to outside companies at the beginning [we'd have made some money], but most of the value wouldn't have stayed in the community.
"We are still doing a lot of licensing to existing companies, but it is more strategic," he added. "We try to go to existing companies in the region first."
Paau also hopes to develop an "ecosystem" like one in San Diego, which includes specialized legal talent and local offices of outside venture capital firms, with the university as the hub.
Paau is the first CCTEC director to also hold a vice provost position, a move designed to emphasize the importance of technology transfer. "CCTEC is an operating unit of the university," Paau explained, "and operates under university policies to encourage entrepreneurship and proper interactions with industry. Fortunately the current view of senior administration is that we have to invest for the future and is supportive of updating policies and practice guidelines to accommodate the changes that are necessary. I think that is a great vision."