Commercialization Forces University Researchers Into The Business Lab

Lisa Stehno-Bittel has finally started sleeping again.

For months after she and research partner Karthik Ramachandran made the decision to branch out from academic research and found biotech startup Likarda LLC in Kansas City, she would lie awake at night and wonder, “What am I doing?”

For Ramachandran, who earned a doctorate from the University of Kansas Medical Center last year, the idea of a startup was an exciting way to push the boundaries of innovation. But Stehno-Bittel, who has spent nearly two decades doing academic research, needed some convincing.

Apart from the typical challenges that come with starting a company, Stehno-Bittel had to completely change the way she thought about research.

“My postdoctoral mentor thought that research was sacred, almost, and that our goal was to find the truth, and commercialization was not the point,” she said.

“Now that I’m involved in it, I know that if you want to make an impact in health — whether that’s human health, animal health, whatever — you have to do this. You can’t just publish that research paper and hope somebody else picks it up for you. It’s just not going to happen.”

Stehno-Bittel and Ramachandran are among a small but growing number of academic scientists who are taking their research out from under the auspices of a university laboratory and founding companies dedicated to commercializing their technology.

Many attribute the trend to a growing urgency to make new technologies available to the public, and Kansas City offers a unique set of resources to aid the process.

Moving from the traditional

Researchers traditionally have focused on publishing papers to secure government grants in what’s known as the “publish or perish” mentality. But the likelihood that those papers will translate quickly — or at all — into a product available to the public is slim.

According to the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, it takes about 13 years to turn a target discovery into a drug available to the public.

But things are starting to change, said Frank Kruse, vice president of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center and executive director of the BTBC’s University of Kansas Medical Center facility. The BTBC space is a collaborative business center that is home to Likarda, the company Stehno-Bittel and Ramachandran started.

Kruse said he sees a growing focus by the medical and bioscience communities on pushing new technology to market more quickly through startups.

“It’s definitely a trend that is picking up steam, and there’s a real need,” he said. “An increasing number of institutions are recognizing the benefits of becoming forces for economic development rather than just simply the traditional research orientation.”

Joe Monaco, assistant director of strategic communications at the University of Kansas, said that nine of the 24 startups that have come out of the university were founded in the past two years. Most of those companies were focused on health care and bioscience, but others sprang from such disciplines as education and information technology.

“Translational science and technology transfer have been important areas of focus for KU in recent years,” he said, noting the 2010 hire of Julie Goonewardene, who works with faculty members to turn their ideas into commercially viable entities.

The University of Missouri boasts similar statistics: During the past five years, the university has had 24 faculty startups, 10 of which were focused on human health.

The number of startups launched nationwide by university researchers increased 3 percent in 2011, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. The number of university-spawned startups that remained operational that year increased by 7 percent.

From bench to business

When Ramachandran and Stehno-Bittel discovered ways to grow miniaturized organs and tumors faster and larger than other research groups, several people at KU told them that they had a viable business idea and pushed them to pursue it. Months later, they opened their lab space in the BTBC on the KU Medical Center campus.

They’re testing their technology as a way to treat diabetes in animals and looking at other applications for treating cancer in animals.

“I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship, personally — coming up with new ideas and entering uncharted territory,” Ramachandran said. “But I always imagined that once I got my Ph.D., I would go out and work for a big pharmaceutical company, and that’s where I would gain my experience.”

Ramachandran, like Stehno-Bittel, said one of the biggest challenges was shifting his mind-set to focus not only on the research, but also on business. Being a fellow in the Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation at the KU Medical Center helped him to get some of that information and change his thinking, he said.

The institute, run by Scott Weir, provides seed money to help faculty and students develop promising research into commercial products and provides them with business training and access to other entrepreneurs.

“It was really eye-opening for a scientist because it brought in the idea of how do you communicate your technology to a wider audience,” Ramachandran said. “In science, we’re all trained to speak to researchers, to peers. So it was really interesting to learn, ‘Well, how do I communicate this if I’m talking to a business professional or if I’m talking to a customer?’”

Local entrepreneur Toby Rush founded EyeVerify, a biometric technology company, after working with a university researcher who had developed the initial technology. Rush helped turn that technology into a commercial product.

Rush said that one of the biggest limitations faced by universities and academic researchers is that they’re isolated in the laboratory setting and don’t necessarily understand what the market needs and how to turn an idea into a commercial product.

“There’s an allure that everyone should go do their own startup, but the reality is that most startups fail,” he said. “You’ve got to partner with someone.”

Kansas City is home to countless organizations, foundations and incubators aimed at doing just that, not least of which is the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

“When it comes to moving science to the market, Kansas City is not unique,” said Lesa Mitchell, vice president of innovation and networks at the Kauffman Foundation. “But what is unique is working with Lawrence (KU) and working with the life and animal science groups and working with Scott (Weir)’s institute.”

The Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation partners with KU and other organizations to help translate research into products. Weir said that he sees the collaboration among universities and organizations in the region as a real asset to the health innovation community and that it is important to continue to build up avenues for collaboration in a university setting.

“Today, more than ever, investors — existing companies, patient advocacy groups, the government — are looking to universities to be able to play this role, to really create innovations that could lead to game-changing products,” he said.

Mitchell attributed the changing mind-set among scientists to a greater level of awareness on university campuses and the availability of online resources and collaboration.

“I think we’re seeing many more scientists frustrated from not just wanting to publish papers and actually wanting to make a difference,” she said. “In the past, that didn’t happen as often. University scientists saw their role simply as, ‘I’m doing this research, and I’m going for my next grant,’ but now there’s a much bigger push to say, ‘What do I do beyond the grant, beyond the paper, and how do I make a difference in the market or in the patient’s life?’”

Brianne Pfannenstiel Reporter- Kansas City Business Journal