Part I, the need
The University of Rochester is a basic research institution. This means that our world-class scientists ask questions of the universe and then attempt to tease out the answers. They ask questions like: Why do we sleep? Can an object be hidden in plain sight? Or Can a surface be modified to repel water?
The vast majority of research conducted at Rochester – like at every other basic research institution – is funded through grants. That’s great news for the early research, but what happens when our research results in an important discovery with commercial potential? Such discoveries are often very early-stage, requiring additional research, data, or a simple demonstration that our assumptions are correct and our solutions efficacious.
Grants don’t pay for proof-of-concept follow-up research or prototype development. They pay only for pure research. Developing discoveries to the point where they are commercially applied and serve the public good is beyond their scope.
Therefore, universities turn to commercial partners to get important discoveries to market. Commercial partners, as a rule, are risk-averse and disinterested in licensing basic research discoveries until those discoveries have been developed and de-risked to the point of a reasonable likelihood of commercial (and financial) success.
Scott Catlin, Associate Vice President for Technology Ventures, uses an apple metaphor to explain this disconnect: Customers want to buy beautiful, juicy apples. We have a handful of seeds. We’re pretty sure – but not always 100% confident – that they’re apple seeds. A grocer can’t sell seeds to her apple-hungry customers, but if we show her a tree laden with beautiful, juicy apples we can do business. There may be an occasional grocer who will take our word on the quality of the fruit if we can, at the very least, prove that our seeds grow into healthy apple trees. It is, therefore, incumbent on us at the University – at UR Ventures – to grow as many seeds as we can into trees.
At the University of Rochester, one of the mechanisms we have to develop our discoveries to the point at which they attract commercial interest is the Technology Development Fund. The TDF is funded by the University, the Medical Center, UR Ventures, and through generous donations, but there is never going to be enough available resources to fund every worthy project. As it is, we manage to fund between 4 and 8 projects annually. This means we need to find alternate means to advance the rest. To this end, UR Ventures is field-testing a crowdfunding campaign to see if this might be a viable option for a few select projects. The project was discussed in the April 2016 issue of UR Ventures Technology Review and the campaign may be viewed here.