Helping to turn university technologies into sustainable businesses
The Ohio State University Taught by: Michael Camp
The inventor-entrepreneur is a romantic figure. But plenty of companies thrive by commercializing the inventions of others. Technology Venturing builds businesses around sophisticated technologies that have not yet found commercial uses.
Michael Camp is like of one of those reality-show hosts who crawl around basements ferreting out neglected antiques. Before each semester, Camp, academic director of Ohio State's Center for Entrepreneurship, scours the labs at his university and outside research organizations for technologies that never gained commercial traction. Teams comprising M.B.A.'s, technical majors, and law students each evaluate three such technologies and choose one on which to focus, after consulting with scientists, industry experts, and potential customers. "They want to know whether the invention solves a problem significant enough that you could build a business around it," says Camp. "They're not allowed to dismiss one because it looks complicated."
Often, teams will uncover more marketable applications than what the inventor had in mind. For example, a physics researcher at OSU designed an electrically charged polymer for stimulating cell growth; he envisioned it being in the body to promote healing. But getting there was a $50 million proposition, so the technology languished. Camp's students determined that pharmaceutical companies could use the polymer to grow cells for cancer research. They found a local company to beta test it, the university licensing office rewrote the patent, and OSU is now fielding customer queries.
That time, the patent holder marketed the technology. Other times, the patent holder licenses the intellectual property to the students, who form a business around it. In either case, students must develop go-to-market strategies. Corporate executives, veteran entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists help them do so, sitting with the teams every week instead of merely dropping by to lecture or hear pitches, as is typical with entrepreneurship classes.
"Learning entrepreneurship is 20 percent study and 80 percent execution," says Camp. "But I do have them write business plans, because I need something to grade."
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan