Tech Transfer: Why It Matters and How Philly’s Making It Better

While others bicker, University City Science Center CEO Stephen Tang offers a solution

As we approach our nation’s birthday this weekend, let’s give a nod to another Philadelphia first: The University City Science Center. It’s the nation’s oldest and largest urban business incubator, providing physical space, resources and funding to help startup companies and university researchers commercialize new technologies. With 31 university partners across the region, the Science Center is no stranger to technology transfer, the process that allows university research to be commercialized for greater public benefit.

It’s also at the center of a national debate over whether tech transfer encourages or hampers the creation of tech startups.

The backstory: Three decades ago, legislation was passed that allowed universities to license and profit from intellectual property. That paved the way for federally funded research, which rocked the tech transfer world.

In a Businessweek opinion piece, Vice President Robert E. Litan of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation — which encourages entrepreneurship — claims tech transfer slows the creation of startups. Faculty members with innovative ideas are missing out on opportunities to commercialize because laws lock them in to their affiliated university’s technology transfer protocol.

Not so, according to the Association of University Technology Managers, national advocates of tech transfer. “American universities create more than two startup companies each working day, according to a 2008 AUTM survey,” wrote AUTM President Arundeep S. Pradhan in his own Businessweek article.

The back-and-forth continues, marked by a noteworthy rebuttal to both from University City Science Center President and CEO Stephen Tang earlier this month. Tang, who took the executive leadership position in 2008, has a laid-back persona that’s equally weighed by his intense dedication to the subject at hand. And he understands the value of this region’s technology economy.

Instead of bickering, Tang pointed to the Science Center’s new early-stage proof-of-concept funding program — dedicated to the region’s healthy life sciences community — as a solution.

The program, called QED, from the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum, or “proven as demonstrated,” provides funding, advice and guidance to researchers hoping to make the commercial jump. It helps bridge the gap between research grants and investors and venture capital firms, a divide that Tang acknowledges is popularly known as the “Valley of Death” for commercialization.

Since QED launched last April, the center has funded six innovative projects, like a low-cost, radiation-free breast cancer screening device developed at Drexel University, and a minimally invasive technique for replacing heart valves from a Penn research team, along with a handful of other innovative ideas and technologies.

Last week, the Science Center announced that it is accepting applications for projects to fund for its third round of QED funding.

But more pressing, perhaps, is this nation’s chance to help innovate its tech transfer model by replicating QED elsewhere, as Tang writes.

This weekend, let’s remember that Philadelphia is still helping lay the foundation for new ideas in this region and beyond. — Brian James Kirk

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