Eric D. Wachsman has long wanted to solve the world’s energy conundrum. So, 25 years ago in a California classroom, he began work that he hoped would ultimately lead to a marketable, long-term and dependable solution.
At Stanford University in the late 1980s, Wachsman made a breakthrough that has led to the creation of high-efficiency fuel cells that are being developed for commercial use by Fulton-based Redox Power Systems.
Wachsman’s invention — while still in need of investors to increase development funding — is potentially an example of university research being successfully moved from laboratories and academic journals into the marketplace. The scientist’s fuel cells could one day replace a car’s internal combustion engine or heat and cool an elementary school.
But Wachsman’s entrepreneurial disposition isn’t necessarily common in academic circles, where tenure-track research professors teach courses and seek to have their work published in academic journals, but do not always consider commercial applications.
The reasons? Successful commercialization is often a long shot, and there traditionally hasn’t been much of a reward for that kind of use of their precious time.
That’s why a University System of Maryland Board of Regents committee enacted a resolution this summer that gives tenure-track professors some incentive to move their work from university laboratories into company meeting rooms. Now, the marketing of research is considered in performance evaluation, on par with publication and student success.
“Faculty are individuals; each of them has different driving forces,” said Wachsman, now a professor and director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center. “Some are focused on doing fundamental science, and that’s fine. Others are quite interested in the commercial side. I happen to want to do both.”
Previously, professors were not rewarded for spending time moving research to the market, and so those hours were thought better spent publishing that research and teaching courses.
“They wanted to send a message that commercialization is not only tolerated, but it’s rewarded in our system,” said Gary L. Attman, chairman of the board’s Economic Development and Technology Commercialization Committee. “This is just one arrow in our quiver, but it’s a big one. Maybe it’s a bazooka in our quiver.”
University President Wallace D. Loh wants to see research like Wachsman’s out in the public sector. Technology transfer has traditionally befuddled the otherwise highly-regarded research institutions in Maryland, including the state’s flagship in College Park and the University of Maryland Baltimore and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Loh said that’s because university faculty are often researchers, rarely entrepreneurs.
“They don’t really care if their research has commercial value,” Loh said, saying that top researchers would choose the corporate world if marketing their work had a deep appeal.
Hitting the jackpot
Not that researchers don’t want to hit the jackpot with a successfully marketed product. That’s part of the motivation for Remedium Technologies CEO William Dowling, whose company could one day market medical equipment that would have significant applications for the military. But Dowling, a University of Maryland graduate student, is thinking about hospital applications.
“There’s a lot more money in surgeries,” he said.
But finding the investment money necessary to make a business profitable is time-consuming and risky. Warren Citrin, CEO for Redox, said that’s part of the reason professors might shy away from starting companies.
“There is a good bit of risk taking it from the laboratory to putting it in an actual physical configuration someone can use,” Citrin said. “Someone has to be willing to lose the money and take a shot at it.”
Maybe more precious to tenure-track professors, though, is time. If a startup fails, the hours spent commercializing their research could have been used to further their academic reputation through publication. There was no incentive to take the risk, Loh said.
“You did not get any reward whatsoever for commercialization,” he said.
University system Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan said that’s what the Board of Regents panel attempted to correct with the policy change, which was suggested by officials at the state’s three traditional research universities.
“They are now officially included in the university’s policy,” Kirwan said. “There’s recognition among the leadership across the system that this was something that we needed to do. It’s both symbolic and substantive, the change in the promotion and tenure [process].”
Wachsman said it couldn’t have come soon enough. Some professors, he said, might have little interest in starting a company or seeking a patent for their work product.
For those who were interested, though, the effect of time taken to commercialize research was punitive.
“If you’re sitting here working in a lab … you can write papers that will get notoriety, or you’re going to go the avenue of trying to patent [research] and create intellectual property,” Wachsman said. “If there are barriers for the latter, you’re going to do the former.
“You’re now allowing for the commercialization to be part of the evaluation. Prior to that, you were evaluated on publication, [teaching] your students. [Market research] was something you did on your own, but you didn’t get any credit for it when it came to promotion and evaluation.”
That’s what universities have to drill home to their faculty before practical applications can be sought for research at the state’s schools.
“We are in the process of changing it,” Loh said. “This is a culture change, and culture doesn’t change overnight.”
David F. Barbe, director of College Park’s Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, said that’s where his program and those like it come into play. The university’s on-campus incubator provides the resources faculty members need to conceptualize a product and its market.
“They’ve been very helpful,” Wachsman said. “They’re the ones who were able to find the investors in order to do this. I had the opportunity to discuss this with him, and through those relationships, we were able to develop the funding. They made those connections.”
Those connections are vital, Barbe said, and not something university professors are outfitted to make themselves.
“Generally, faculty don’t have the knowledge or time to start a company,” Barbe said. “We do market analysis, customer analysis, we put together a business plan, we bring in funding, we get them customers, help them develop the product and, before they graduate, we bring in a senior management team to take the company out of the university.”
Redox, he said, is just one company that has managed to step off the safe sod of the university’s sprawling campus. The trick is finding the right professor and the right research for commercialization.
Brian Darmody, the University of Maryland’s associate vice president for research and economic development, said faculty members are like “entrepreneurial units.”
“People sometimes don’t realize those individual faculty members, they’re kind of like small businesses,” Darmody said. “They’re hustling and competing against other universities. … Maryland has a lot of academic research. College Park does over a half a billion [dollars], UMB does a half a billon dollars. … That’s a lot.”
But Darmody is hesitant to shove full-steam-ahead touting commercializing academic research. Professors are, after all, in a university setting for a reason — and the work they do that does not necessarily make money or create jobs in Maryland is valuable, too.
“I sometimes worry we get too wrapped up commercialization,” Darmody said. “We do a lot of work in space, trying to understand dark matter and other things [that] there’s never going to be a patent on. But it’s going to help us understand the universe, and that by itself [has value].
“Simultaneously, we should figure out what pieces of this have specific economic return.”
That’s what Kirwan is betting the system’s universities can do. He wants 325 successful companies to have been started by this decade’s conclusion, and the system is well on its way with 70 companies having been created in the first two years of the chancellor’s 10-year plan.
‘Do what they do best’
But he agreed with Darmody, saying that faculty ought not forget what they came to the university for in the first place.
“Faculty should do what they do best, create new knowledge,” Kirwan said. “And then we need to have the professional expertise to sift through that new knowledge and identify those ideas and concepts that have real economic potential and make sure they get into the marketplace. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, is build that infrastructure.”
The state has played a role there in recent years, Darmody said. The $84 million Maryland Venture Fund, started this year, provides seed money to companies in order to help cover the cost of bringing products to the market. The fund, monitored by the state Department of Business and Economic Development, invests 60 percent of its money in technology companies and 40 percent in life science companies.
Universities are also pushing entrepreneurship early in students’ careers, hoping their work in the classroom translates into the kind of research that could be commercialized, much like Wachsman’s work at Stanford.
“Certain students should make a job, not just take a job,” Darmody said. “In principle, small businesses are responsible for a lot of job creation in the United States. Some of the data suggests it’s the young companies … responsible for most of the net job creation in Maryland.”
It comes down to desire, Wachsman said. And with funding dollars becoming more available and new incentive provided to market research, faculty and students are in a better environment for commercialization than they were even a few years ago. Moving his work into the marketplace is the only way for it to have meaning, he said.
“That’s really what’s driving me, more solving the energy problem than anything else,” Wachsman said.
Attman, the Board of Regents’ committee chairman, said the commercialization of such research is what will help the university system improve the company it keeps.
“My goal would be for the University System of Maryland to be mentioned in the same rank as MIT and Stanford,” Attman said. “That’s our goal.”