Patience is a virtue. Never more so than when you consider university research-inspired, commercialized ventures — and the eagerly anticipated economic benefits sought from them.
Having worked with entrepreneurial start-ups developed from university research labs for more than 20 years, guiding their transition into commercial business ventures, I have come away with one conclusion: It takes time.
As Connecticut and the University of Connecticut devote unprecedented levels of commitment — and resources — to encouraging, nurturing, attracting and engaging top talent in the biosciences to develop the next generation of breakthrough discoveries here, we would be well-advised to appreciate that in this field, overnight success is often measured in decades. Of course, talent, research and a sound execution strategy are essential, but patience is the key ingredient.
Yes, there are occasional quick, game-changing discoveries. Gatorade, born at the University of Florida in the mid-1960s, the collaborative creation of researcher Robert Cade and an innovative coach, was one. The ophthalmological drug Restasis, developed in the University of Georgia lab of Renee Kaswan, was another.
Google and Vitamin D also come to mind, but it is a short list. The longer list is of innovations with considerable incubation periods, seeking traction in a crowded marketplace, working to identify the best path forward and the right match in industry.
The best example of public funding to spur research commercialization resides in North Carolina. The Research Triangle Park, now the largest research park in the world, is undeniably the clearest reflection of the governmental version of "if you build it, they will come." But turn back the clock to the start of that initiative, when "technology transfer" and "North Carolina" were rarely — if ever — uttered in the same sentence.
It began with $1.5 million raised from a handful of visionary leaders in 1965. From 200,000 square feet in 1967 to more than 22.5 million square feet today, the park grew steadily. Along the way, there were hits and misses, restructurings and cash flow problems, which the state stepped up to solve. What North Carolina did well was stay the course, decade after decade. They didn't throw in the towel when results weren't immediate.
That is the hardest part. We gravitate to visible, speedy results and prefer splashy over steady. But seeds take time to grow, and won't be rushed. Pouring on more water doesn't make them grow faster, it just makes a muddy mess.
That is why Connecticut, having embarked on this journey, now needs well-reasoned strategic analysis and a consistent, resolute strategy as much as it needs financial resources. The legislature approved more than $1.5 billion in bonding and $137 million from the general fund for "Next Generation Connecticut." Connecticut Innovations recently awarded $4 million to 30 firms, and CT Next plans to provide up to $5 million to entrepreneurial endeavors. Investments in the commercialization of university research are similarly wise, prudent and practical. But expectations will be met over time.
Although I applaud Connecticut's bold, full-fledged arrival on the technology transfer playing field, we need to assure all the players that we're in it for the long haul. Then we need to back our words with actions by establishing effective, efficient approaches that will allow us to stay steady and hold firm.
I am encouraged we have the will. I do not, however, underestimate the task. We should also be cognizant of a significant side benefit. As we diligently identify, launch and guide the next great ideas, the university and state profit from the effort itself. Better connecting industry with university expertise and inventions, for the public good as well as commercial success, increases the visibility of the research and its considerable potential.
Beyond that, the increased state commitment brings superbly talented faculty, at the top of their respective disciplines, to work closely with students, encouraging and inspiring their own out-of-the-box breakthroughs. The university community, a generation of students and our state are enriched by the enterprise. Some would even argue that this is the greater benefit.
R. Mark Van Allen is president of UConn Ventures, a for-profit subsidiary of the UConn Foundation that establishes business start-ups based on innovative technologies discovered at the University of Connecticut.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun