Early-stage technologies attract corporate interest
Taking his first invention from the laboratory to the marketplace has not been an easy process for Mohamed El-Sayed Ali, a mechanical engineering professor at Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University. About five years ago, he developed a heat-insulating material—made from the fibers of a tropical plant known in the Middle East as “apple of Sodom”—that he says also repels moisture and damps sound. Despite winning several innovation awards, including a gold medal at the 2012 International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva, Ali has so far failed to attract the commercial partners needed to take his idea to the next stage.
Last month Ali was invited as an “innovation awardee” to present a prototype of his invention (shown in this photo) at an annual conference held 15–18 June at National Harbor in Maryland, near Washington, DC. The event is put on by TechConnect, an organization based in Austin, Texas, that helps technology and investment firms vet external early-stage technologies, primarily in microelectronics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and clean energy. Participants seeking seed funding or a licensing deal for their uncommercialized intellectual property (IP) can request or be invited into private meetings with representatives from the technology and investment firms that sponsor the event.
Networking conferences are one solution for exposing sometimes overlooked IP developed in universities, national labs, and startup companies. Typically, such events involve a public demonstration or exhibition of a technology followed by a private pitch session with interested partners or investors. If the pitch is successful, then an informal negotiation may take place.
The TechConnect conference has a slightly broader focus. It combines three events: a research conference highlighting technical talks and poster sessions, an innovation summit and showcase spotlighting uncommercialized technologies, and a symposium featuring the federal agencies that administer the US Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. The SBIR/STTR programs award more than $2.3 billion in grants annually to startups developing technologies of interest to the federal government (see Physics Today, February 2012, page 24).
A big draw at TechConnect were presentations from each of the 11 US federal agencies that award Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants. [Credit: TechConnect]
Key to TechConnect’s networking model is a “corporate peer-review process,” says Matthew Laudon, the organization’s cofounder and CEO. In preparation for the conference, says Laudon, the organization assembles a list of IP and its main corporate sponsors choose the most promising technologies that “align with their strategic internal interests. In effect, TechConnect acts as a filter,” says Laudon, who has held positions in the research divisions and technology-transfer offices at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Motorola.
This year’s conference drew some 3000 attendees from more than 70 countries. TechConnect reports that more than 400 private meetings occurred between participants and its corporate sponsors and more than 1000 private meetings occurred between participants and SBIR/STTR program managers. But Laudon acknowledges that the organization does not know how many of those meetings result in formal business agreements or winning SBIR/STTR grant proposals. “Ideally, we’d like to show that the events are having an economic impact,” says Laudon. “But there’s a lot of fuzzy action that takes place [after the meeting], and we don’t capture any of that data.”
King Saud’s Ali says he landed private onsite meetings with five major companies, including Ingersoll Rand, a heating and air systems manufacturer, and Nike, the shoe and apparel company. A month after the meeting, he says he was still waiting to hear back from suitors, who needed to “[check in] with their headquarters.”
Backroom deals are encouraged at the TechConnect conference, where large technology companies like Shell and Sabic can set up private meetings with inventors or business representatives of promising early-stage technologies.
TechConnect attendee Larry Loev, CEO of the technology-transfer organization for Israel’s Ariel University, says he secured several follow-up meetings with companies interested in the university’s IP portfolio. He also says he met privately with an entrepreneur at the TechConnect conference who was interested in commercializing a handheld millimeter-wave scanner (similar to the full-body scanners in airports) developed at Ariel to noninvasively detect hidden metallic and nonmetallic objects at security checkpoints.
A new trend for TechConnect, says Laudon, is US states sending “innovation delegations.” This year 11 states organized delegations that included university technology-transfer offices, national labs, and startup companies looking to expose their IP portfolios or to show off their technology-development capabilities. For example, the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute highlighted its partnership with Sierra Lobo, an awardee of an STTR grant from NASA. Tapping into the institute’s expertise in fuel cells, Sierra Lobo developed a technology to purify helium—a scarce and expensive commodity—that gets contaminated with hydrogen during rocket launches. Laudon says that 35 other states sent representatives to assess the conference for possible participation in 2015.
International delegations also attend TechConnect’s events for much the same reasons as US states, says Laudon. Part of the German delegation, the Leibniz Institute for New Materials exhibited a prototype touchscreen that uses indium tin oxide, rather than more expensive silver, in the transparent, conductive layer. South Korea’s delegation included the Nano Technology Research Association, which presented a sampling of the country’s academic and industrial nanotechnology R&D activities.
Laudon says that the networking conference model works well in the present era of “open innovation,” in which technology companies are placing more emphasis on innovating through external collaborations or acquisitions than on internal R&D. By some measures, basic research institutions are profiting from the trend. In the Association of University Technology Managers’ US Licensing Activity Survey of 299 institutions, including 232 universities and colleges and 2 national labs, respondents reported executing 5130 new technology licenses—many of them to startup companies—and receiving more than $520 million of income from licensing activities in fiscal year 2012.
Still, says Loev, it’s difficult for universities to attract the attention of large companies, which prefer to deal with small- to-medium-sized enterprises. That’s understandable, he says, considering that university technologies are generally designed “just to prove that the physics or the chemistry of the innovation works. . . . Anyone working in university technology transfer will tell you how difficult it is to successfully engage with large corporations. We attempt it with tears in our eyes.”