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How to License Great Technology

You don't necessarily need teams of hotshot coders and scientists to bring your big idea to life. Consider licensing already-existing technology instead.
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There's a popular image of entrepreneurs as brilliant coders or scientists, working round the clock to perfect some seemingly-obscure bit of technology that will nonetheless change the world.

It doesn't have to be that way. Another tack is to find the technology you need -- or important pieces of it -- at university research labs, which, not incidentally, are not funded by you. In 2011 alone, universities pulled in more than $1.8 billion in licensing income from faculty- and student- generated innovation.

But how do you find the right university to work with? Are there some universities better to approach than others? How do you know who’s got the goods and who doesn’t?

The perennial powerhouses such as MIT, Northwestern, and the University of California system are expert at generating licensing deals and launching startups, so they’re always attractive partners. Just don’t stop there. A growing number of U.S. universities have become much more business-friendly. Universities not traditionally known as hotbeds of innovation-;Nebraska and Utah for example-;are taking commercialization much more seriously, welcoming deals and creating opportunities for savvy partners.

But figuring out who might have the intellectual property you need, and the willingness to help you license it, takes some homework. Here are five things to keep in mind:

The university’s leadership. Do the president, provosts, deans, and trustees make it easy to work with the university, or do they strew barriers in your path? Are they transparent with their people, processes and results? Sometimes university leadership disagrees about the proper role of commercialization to the school, making it much harder to do business with them. If a university makes it difficult to find information, it’s probably best to move on.

Universities, not faculty, own the intellectual property. Even if you have a long-standing relationship with Dr. Smith in the nuclear physics department, you will still have to go through the university to license her intellectual property. You need to abide by the university’s terms of engagement.

Understand that the mission of a university is research, teaching and service. While many schools are including innovation and commercialization as part of their “new” mission, they have other priorities. There are still students to teach and research labs that engage in multiple projects, often driven by a variety of funding sources.

University labs are not commercial labs. Their research is not conducted under a veil of secrecy; faculty and students need to publish. University labs rely on  students, so the employee base changes from semester to semester. Interruptions in a project’s flow are par for the course.

You’re dealing with early technology rather than “shelf-ready” products and services. People, capital, and your expertise will help get early innovations to market, but you need to be patient.

Entrepreneurs can tap into universities’ innovation assets and IP and be wildly successful. Manage expectations, be realistic, and understand who you’re dealing with, and your opportunities for success will grow exponentially.

Last updated: Nov 20, 2012

JULIE GOONEWARDENE

Julie K. Goonewardene is a recognized leader in technology commercialization, business formation, and public/private partnerships. She was recently elected to the Board of Trustees for the American Medical Association. She was the co-founder of Cantilever Technologies, a software company that was acquired in 2004.




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