Transferring technology from academia to business


Jenn Kakubowski, senior molecular biologist at Syzygy Biotech Solutions, at work in its lab at the Cook-DeVos Center on the Medical Mile. Syzygy develops and sells biological reagents to life sciences researchers across the nation. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Many universities, especially the big research universities like the University of Michigan, are the “idea factories” in every state, according to J. Kevin McCurren.

“What we want to do is get those ideas into the public venue,” he added, to commercialize them.

Universities like to call that “technology transfer.”

Grand Valley State University isn’t in the league of research universities like U-M, but it has a new, unique role to play in technology transfer in the state.

McCurren is executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at GVSU, which recently signed a contract with the Grand Rapids SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority to manage the zone’s new business incubator.

The change also resulted in a name change for the incubator, located on the fifth floor of GVSU’s Cook-DeVos Center on Michigan Street in downtown Grand Rapids. The incubator used to be known as the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative; now it is GR Current.

“The name changed to GR Current to expand the idea that we’re working with more than just life science people,” said McCurren.

“It’s not a new thing, but we’re trying to be a bit more proactive with it,” he said.

On Sept. 24, GVSU will host a meeting of the technology transfer offices at Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Wayne State, Western Michigan and Oakland universities and the Detroit incubator Automation Alley.

“For this meeting we will be looking for West Michigan companies that may have technology inside their company and would like to work with a Michigan university and their technology offices to develop the technology for use outside their company,” said McCurren.

“At this meeting we will also have the universities present some of the technologies (being developed in their research labs) and are looking for corporate partners” to work with them in developing the technology for the market place.

Those corporate partners, according to McCurren, could be established companies or start-ups that believe they have a market targeted for the IP in development and have money to invest in R&D or can add some expertise to the work under way.

The matchmaking can go in the opposite direction, too. Some individuals and small companies are looking for a university research lab or engineering department that can help “spin out” a new idea or project it has underway.

IP — intellectual property, as in patentable inventions and new scientific discoveries — comes from two distinct settings. The first are the creative types who have an idea and are trying to develop it, either for themselves or for the company that employs them. This includes individuals such as Orville Crain, part of an independent team in Muskegon that invented the Klever Kutter, a safe box opener that couldn’t be used as a weapon. It had sold more than a million units a little over two years after it hit the market, and Crain is one of the founders of the Muskegon Inventors Network.

The other major setting that continually generates inventions, innovations and break-through discoveries are universities.

“We do a little bit of that,” said McCurren, although he quickly added that GVSU is not actually considered a research-based university, and he played down its IP results when compared to the major research universities, such as University of Michigan.

“They have over 300 idea disclosures every year. We might get 10 to 12,” he added.

“Disclosure” refers to the university administration being officially notified of some new development or breakthrough by its faculty members that could have market value someday. The university would own the resulting intellectual property and would patent it in order to license it to a commercial enterprise willing to invest in it, thus providing a return to the university to help recover the cost of its research facilities.

While not an R&D powerhouse, GVSU does maintain a “platform” for R&D because it provides an unusual opportunity for both faculty and students to work with potential external partners — typically, businesses — on real-world challenges and problems.

A good example at GVSU is Ryan Thum, who has been doing genetic research into watermilfoil, a highly invasive Eurasian aquatic plant, at GVSU’s Annis Water Resources Institute on Muskegon Lake. Thum’s work has resulted in a process for determining if a given lake’s watermilfoil will be affected by herbicides. The plant has mutated  with some strains impervious to available herbicides.

An Indiana company involved in watermilfoil eradication is interested in Thum’s discovery.

But the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation isn’t limited to just GVSU-generated IP; the contract with the city and state to operate the SmartZone now involves GVSU with private individuals, companies and even other colleges and universities, which is why the Sept. 24 conference is open to other schools, as well. If Hope, Calvin or Aquinas colleges, for example, have some promising IP in development and need help in linking it with outside partners, the CEI is ready and able to assist, said McCurren.

Syzygy Biotech Solutions is a start-up that has been using lab space in GR Current for three or four years. Its founders include two IP attorneys — one of whom also has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Syzygy currently has two patent applications on file at the U.S. Patent Office.

Syzygy’s six employees are developing specialized protein reagents used in laboratories and selling them to some of the best-known research hospitals and universities around the country. One of its original customers is the Van Andel Institute across the street.

There are other small companies around the country doing similar work, but according to Jenn Jakubowski, senior molecular biologist at Syzygy, this company has the advantage of being able to do its research and development faster and at less cost.

And it is growing.

“We plan to interview a GVSU student next week,” she said in mid-August.

McCurren said many of the people developing new IP need help, and part of the mission of the SmartZones around the state, funded in part through the Michigan Economic Development Corp., is to help those start-up entities become successful companies that provide jobs in Michigan.

A very successful pharmaceuticals researcher working at another start-up in GR Current has attracted investors who have provided probably millions of dollars in research funding, said McCurren.

“At the University of Michigan, he’d probably be one of hundreds who do that. For us here in West Michigan, that’s a real win."

The work of GVSU’s CEI is rewarding to many people, in different aspects, said McCurren, not the least of whom are the inventors and researchers themselves.

“It’s a great avenue for the facility to get involved in the community,” he said. “One of the best things that can happen to a researcher is to see their actual work being used in real life — really making a difference.”

“The MEDC likes what they see here,” added McCurren. “They like the fact that we’re linking the university resources to that component of economic development” that hinges on new IP and putting it to work.

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