Finance, business | Technology & innovation

How American on Russian university board builds a bridge between the university and the local business community

31 Jul '14
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Today we continue our discussion with Kendrick White, the Vice Rector for Innovation Activity at the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (UNN), regarding problems and prospects of the commercialization of university-based technology. From providing a brief overview of international best practices to describing how this Volga region university has been trying to apply and even enhance global standards on the home turf, heres what the sole foreigner on the UNN management board deems vital to achieve.

Are there any standard practices in high technology commercialization across the world which you believe are essential for replication or even improvement at UNN?

We have a number of models which have proved to be the most successful in the United States, primarily at the universities in Silicon Valley, such as Stanford or the University of Southern California in San Diego, which have strong proof-of-concept centers, tech commercialization centers, acceleration program, venture capital funds, private programs like Y-Combinator and Tech Stars. This is a rich environment where the universities are collaborating directly with business and private financial investors.

Another perfect example is Cambridge Massachusetts, led really by MIT and the Deshpande Proof-of-Concept Center at MIT. There are a number of outstanding examples, and other regions in the United States are starting to copy these models. For example, at the University of Utah or the University of Colorado, Boulder, or the University of Texas, Austin, or Research Triangle in North Carolina. They are all following a model where what you have to create is an ecosystem that is cooperating and collaborating together on an ongoing basis.

There should be a leader of the process, which is usually a proof-of-concept (PoC) or technology commercialization center which effectively is acting as a systems integrator and is trying to coordinate the commercialization of new scientific discoveries emanating from the university labs. Its not a new model; the model was created more than 20 years ago in the University of Colorado, Boulder, by David Allen. This element of an innovation ecosystem has proved to be a critical factor in creating successful ecosystems across the U.S.

What you have to start with is to assess the technological viability of new discoveries; then you have to effectively start to test the market viability of those technologies. Neither process should be completely separate. There should be collaboration between the scientific teams and the marketing teams, so that when you understand that the science is really viable and patentable, and theres something that could be licensed to industry, your PoC basically steps right in and begins to assess the commercial value to determine which way that technology should be commercialized.

Should there be further joint R&D work together with industry, or should the technology be held closely by the university, patented, and then licensed in very specific cases for royalties to be generated from corporations using that technology? Or, as a third alternative, could this be a technology used by a team of young innovative entrepreneurs which could make a new spin-out company? The role of a PoC is to determine as early as possible what a logical roadmap of commercialization is for any given university technology.

Once the roadmap is determined, the proof-of-concept begins to make connections to implement that roadmap: finding mentors, finding angel investors, finding lawyers, bringing them all together, building business models, preparing financial forecasts, developing market research, etc. The PoC must act as a bridge between the university and the local business community. The business community and university tech transfer departments are expected to create teams around this in order to successfully launch that technology towards commercialization.

Its vital to identify the right business people that open the right doors. For example, if youre developing a new medicine, you need to look for one who might have worked inside a global pharmaceutical company and could understand the technology, and understand whether this new molecule might fit into the portfolio of a global corporation. That person could be instrumental in identifying the valuation of that technology for a commercial buyer, and he could even decide to invest in the technology at a very early stage.

This is really what is understood by the best practices in global tech commercialization.

What mechanisms of interaction between the main participants in the process (developers, entrepreneurs and investors) are the most suitable, in your opinion?

I think its very important to have a program of events that bring people together, including roundtable discussions with academic community leaders, business community leaders and political community leaders involved, and to have a regular sense of dialog. This will encourage interaction between all these different communities.

We at Lobachevsky have created this dialog by launching a PitchNITE program that offers innovation entrepreneurs the opportunity to present their ideas to a jury of various venture capitalists. Weve created a series of master-classes, bringing in western experts who can share their experience with our students. Weve created a series of legal clinics which are designed to provide legal advice to our entrepreneurs and our innovators in order for them to understand how they might be able to protect their IP or create new spin-out companies.

Our Technology Commercialization center initiates opportunities for different types of people to meet one another. In order to create a real business, you need a team of people from different backgrounds. You cant just take a group of scientists and turn them into businessmen. You need to take the scientists and add to them components of financial expertise, engineering expertise, marketing expertise, management leadership, etc. A team created is the basis for creating a business.
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Locations: Nizhny Novgorod

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