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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The University of New Mexico’s technology transfer program has come a long way in the past 10 years, earning the university national recognition for its achievements.
The Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech transfer office, released statistics this month for fiscal year 2015, which ended in June. The latest metrics cap 20 years of data collection, providing a broad snapshot of UNM accomplishments since the program was launched in 1995.
The data show an impressive leap in activity between 2006 and 2015, with UNM earning $20.14 million in royalties and patent income. That’s up tenfold compared to the previous decade, from 1996-2005, when UNM earned $2.48 million.
In general, all the metrics show a dramatic surge in the past 10 years. That includes:
• 400 licenses issued to companies to take university inventions to market, up from 70 in the previous decade.
• 73 new startups to commercialize UNM technology, up from 17.
• 1,144 invention disclosures by faculty to feed the tech transfer pipeline, up from 503.
• 897 patents filed, up from 314.
• 279 patents issued to UNM by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, up from 175.
The swell in activity reflects a huge cultural shift at UNM, said Joe Cecchi, dean of the UNM School of Engineering and a longtime member of the STC board, which he chaired for seven years.
“Faculty and staff at all levels are now actively participating in university efforts to take new inventions from lab to market,” Cecchi said. “It’s a complete cultural transformation and it reflects a new, emerging ecosystem. A lot of pieces have come together to reinforce the whole commercialization program.”
Today’s dynamism reflects major changes in approach that began in 2004, when Lisa Kuuttila became head of the STC. Kuuttila – a longtime tech transfer professional who previously headed commercialization programs at three other universities – has made a concerted effort to encourage faculty and staff to consider commercial applications for their lab work, disclose new discoveries to the STC and work with the tech transfer office to patent them.
“Lisa has built a high-quality team to make the STC user-friendly, with seminars to explain the process to faculty and outreach at all levels to pull people in,” Cecchi said. “That leadership has been critical.”
Invention disclosures have grown from 18 to 20 per year during the program’s first years of operation to more than 120 today. That, in turn, has created a vibrant pipeline of new technologies available for license through the STC.
“We’re starting to see the activity level come to fruition after planting the seeds over years through invention disclosures and patent filings,” Kuuttila said.
The National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association have included UNM for the past two years on an annual list of 100 universities and research organizations worldwide receiving U.S. patents. This year, UNM ranked 42nd on the list, up from 56th last year.
Among UNM’s 16 “peer” institutions nationwide, it’s first in both the number of invention disclosures and the number of licenses signed to take technology to market. It’s second in number of startup companies created and 11th in licensing income.
“We’re filing about 100 patent applications per year now and we’re turning more of them into issued patents,” Kuuttila said. “We’re also signing between 40 and 60 technology licenses annually. Overall, trends are up.”
This year alone, the university filed 99 patent applications and received 46 new patents. It earned $2.19 million from licensing and patent income, up from $1.72 million last year.
Nine startups were formed to commercialize UNM technology, including seven biomedical companies seeking to develop and market new medical devices, pharmaceuticals and software to improve patient treatment, monitoring and clinical management.
The university has also created novel programs and partnerships with entrepreneurs and investors to help build startups into successful companies.
That includes a unique collaboration with the New Mexico Angels, a group of about 70 individuals who pool their resources to invest in new companies. That partnership allows experienced entrepreneurs to work directly with faculty and staff at the earliest stages of technology development to help build efficient paths to market while providing seed capital to begin the process.
The UNM-Angel partnership is drawing national attention, given the need for tech transfer programs to find seed capital for startups that angel investors can provide, Kuuttila said. “We did a national webinar in June with the Angels that included representatives from 22 universities who want to learn from our experience,” Kuuttila said.
In addition, the UNM Foundation has formed a co-investment fund, approved by regents last year, to provide direct investments of up to $100,000 in new startups that market UNM technologies. The investments are made on a one-for-one matching basis with private investors, allowing the fund to leverage more money for startups. To date, the fund has provided nearly $600,000 to six companies.
Still, a major challenge remains in finding follow-on funding beyond seed capital for startups to continue building their businesses. With so many startups forming in recent years, that issue is becoming more critical.
“That’s a big challenge for companies in New Mexico,” Kuuttila said. “Startups have had to be creative, with some looking for funding internationally and others raising capital on both coasts based on personal contacts.
In the future, the program’s ability to contribute to sustainable economic development in New Mexico could depend on attracting more investment capital, said Sul Kassicieh, a distinguished professor at UNM’s Anderson School of Management.
“The STC has helped generate a substantial portfolio of intellectual property and it’s become very successful in getting that technology out for use in the market,” Kassicieh said. “We’re also training students to become successful entrepreneurs, and we’re working with the city and other partners to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem through the emerging Innovation District Downtown. The only missing ingredient now is to get more investors, because we need to get more money into deals to move technology commercialization further along.”