By Francis Moran and Leo Valiquette
This is the 24th article in a continuing series that examines the state of the ecosystem necessary to successfully bring technology to market. Based on dozens of interviews with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, business leaders, academics, tech-transfer experts and policy makers, this series looks at what is working and what can be improved in the go-to-market ecosystem in the United States, Canada and Britain. We invite your feedback.
A couple of moons ago, we talked about how “entrepreneur” is often a four-letter word on the university campus. Too many schools fail to appreciate how Web 2.0 has democratized innovation for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and make the mistake of assuming it’s only engineers or physics students who can come up with the next billion-dollar idea.
These outdated perspectives are further aggravated by student and faculty cultures that take a dim view of capitalism, scorn profit as a motive, and emphasise formal theory over practical, hands-on projects.
However, there is no shortage of innovation that still comes out of the campus lab from faculty and students. The challenge is finding a path to market and providing these inventive minds with the resources they need for successful technology transfer. As Michael Atkin puts it, “Sometimes these things that are sitting there are great scientific advances, but they’ve got warts on them … they still need proof of concept.”
Over the past 20 years, Atkin has worked as an entrepreneur and startup executive in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. He fits our definition of champion, often taking a leap of faith on a new discovery and investing his sweat equity to achieve proof of concept. These days, Atkin is working with McGill University and Ecole Polytechnique de Montréal to bring new drugs to market, as well as with two medical device companies to commercialize their wound dressing and imaging technologies. He shared with us his thoughts on what it takes to turn a scientific advance from the campus lab into a viable product in the hands of customers.
Is there a market pull?
For Atkin, it all begins with looking at the marketplace and indentifying unmet medical needs and challenges. If, for example, someone said they have a new and better treatment for hypertension, his response would be “existing treatments are cheap, effective and safe. How can you improve on that?”
“I ask myself, is there a real pull for this technology when it is ready for the market? Is this technique proprietary? Can I launch it and make money off it immediately or will generic manufacturers take the market?”
These are, of course, the same questions that must be asked of any technology looking for a market, medical or otherwise.
When it comes to finding that market pull, Frank Rimalovski points to Pasteur’s Quadrant as a reference to distinguish innovations with a clear commercial potential from those which advance the state of knowledge but don’t have an immediate commercial opportunity.
In a recent post, we featured Rimalovski’s thoughts on how tech companies can make the most of their juicy IP leftovers. He spent a decade helping big tech spin out their unused intellectual property into new ventures. These days, he heads up the NYU Innovation Venture Fund for New York University, a seed-stage venture capital fund created to invest in startups built upon NYU technologies and intellectual property.
“You don’t have to compromise science to pursue entrepreneurship,” he said. In many respects they go hand in hand.” Both are looking to solve real problems in our society.
Atkin and Rimalovski both agree that engagement and collaboration is crucial to successful technology transfer from the university lab. The technical know-how of the engineers, technicians and researchers must be combined with the skills of external business people with the necessary leadership and entrepreneurial savvy.
It’s about building “more of that connective tissue” between academics, students and the venture community, Rimalovski said.
The founders must decide how active of a role they want to play in the company and build the team around that, Atkin added. While some academics are ready to become the CSO of a private enterprise, most are not.
“Somebody has to believe in the potential, and it usually helps if that person is not the founder because the founder always believes,” he said. “The trick is convincing other people … you need people prepared to see the spark of the idea and understand the critical experiments that are needed to prove this has real value and …. merit investment by third parties.”
Filling the innovation vacuum
In his work with medical device and drug developers, Atkin says big pharma is increasingly looking for partnerships with smaller players who can engage in the R&D to create innovative new compounds, work that is often too risky for a big company to undertake or that yields too small of a market opportunity. This is because the market has evolved in such a way that big pharma needs billion-dollar ideas to pay the bills, even though there may be plenty of untapped opportunities in niche markets where the revenue potential is only a few hundred million dollars.
According to Atkin, the industry is suffering from an “imagination deficit” that smaller, younger and more nimble companies are well-suited to address. However, these younger companies, even early-stage startups, must take advantage of the university setting to achieve robust proof of concept for promising discoveries that will secure the support of external investors and champions.
“You’ve got to believe in an idea enough to advance it when there is no support and generate enough supportive data to make it interesting,” Atkin said.
The opportunities that exist to help the big guys address their “imagination deficits” of course extend far beyond the drug and medical device industries. It all harkens back to the growing popularity of open innovation, which we touched on a couple of weeks ago.
In a world of widely distributed knowledge, companies can’t afford to rely entirely on their own research, nor can they afford to let internal innovations sit idle. They have to open their doors to let innovation in and out. This creates a wealth of opportunity for university researchers as much as it does for nascent entrepreneurs and innovators in the private sector. But they of course must be willing to tap into those external resources that will help them beat a path to market.
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