Innovation takes center stage at UO Board of Trustees meeting

Presentation on innovation for UO Board of Trustees

The story of one of the University of Oregon’s recent innovation successes is the story of “a failure.”

Or at least it looked that way at first, UO Interim Vice President for Research & Innovation Brad Shelton told the UO Board of Trustees on Friday during a presentation on “UO’s Innovation Ecosystem.”

In the end, a mistake in the lab turned out to be a happy accident, Shelton explained. An experiment to develop the ability to detect chloride resulted in nitrate being detected instead and a new company named SupraSensor Technologies was born shortly thereafter.

Shelton told the story to emphasize the point that basic research can give rise to important innovations when combined with the right resources and partnerships. SupraSensor, which makes wireless soil sensors for precision agriculture was spun out of research technology invented by UO Department of Chemistry professors Mike Haley and Darren Johnson, and is currently in the process of seeking private funding.

Shelton was joined by Associate Vice President for Innovation Chuck Williams for a

presentation charting the history and evolution of innovation management at UO and offering an overview of the commercialization of university-based research.

Focusing on the theme of “partnerships,” Shelton and Williams walked the Board through an innovation overview that emphasized:

  • What defines innovation management at the UO and how the practice differs here as compared to other universities
  • What the UO’s innovation management unit, Innovation Partnership Services, is doing to encourage more innovation
  • How basic research can lead to applied innovations
  • How licensing agreements and spinout companies are benefitting the university and helping to fulfill UO’s mission

With no medical school and no school of engineering, the UO’s innovation portfolio looks very different from other institutions, Williams explained. As a result, the UO sees its greatest percentage of licensing activity from the College of Education and its greatest disclosure activity from the College of Arts & Sciences. In general, the university relies more on licensing revenue from copyrights and other intellectual property and less on patent revenue than other institutions.

When accounting for its smaller size the UO fares well against other comparator institutions when it comes to innovation revenue, Williams said. He pointed to the UO’s College of Education as one of the university’s primary generators of licensing revenue. Using the example of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) work and the School Wide Information System (SWIS) Suite of education tools managed by the UO’s Education and Community Supports unit, Williams showed how the College of Education successfully licenses systems and interventions.

So called evidence-based research licensing models create a “feedback loop,” Williams explained. Because a large portion of users allow the UO to use the research data behind tools like the SWIS Suite, the UO can fine tune the programs, and use data to design the next generation of educational tools. This allows the university to continue to grow and reinvest in projects like the PBIS, which generates $2.5 million in annual licensing revenue, Williams said.

Williams and Shelton cited other successful College of Education projects and pointed to the UO’s 22 active spinout companies as evidence of innovation success. The range of technologies transferred to companies spawned by UO research includes everything from developing anti-parasitic drugs (NemaMetrix) to performing genetic analysis for better plants and animals (Floragenex) to anti-microbial shirts and socks (Dune Sciences).

Shelton touched on the Oregon Regional Accelerator & Innovation Network (RAIN) as an important partnership for the UO. It includes governments, higher education, business community and entrepreneurs and aims to advance the formation and growth of tech-based startups regionally. On Thursday the Board approved of a “gift of  real property” from the city of Eugene that paves the way for a new RAIN headquarters in a downtown Eugene building at 942 Olive St. The building will house other UO activities that support commercialization of university-based or university-assisted research, including the Tyler Invention Greenhouse — a program sponsored by the Alice C. Tyler Perpetual Trust — and the UO Department of Product Design’s Downtown Innovation Launch Lab.

Shelton concluded the presentation on an optimistic note, citing the state of Oregon’s increasing support for innovation programs like Oregon RAIN and the University Venture Development Fund and the recent announcement by the state’s economic development agency that it was making available a new $400,000 fund for entrepreneurs seeking a gateway to larger federal grants. Shelton pointed to a few of the UO’s academic programs that encourage entrepreneurial activity, including:

  • The Graduate Internship Program, a blend of real-world training and graduate level instruction that fast-tracks students into scientific careers
  • The Colligan Design Challenge, an interdisciplinary program open to all UO students that challenges teams to create meaningful and marketable “graphic user interfaces” for mobile and digital devices
  • The Paul Anthony Troiano RAINMaker Fund, which offers seed funds to entrepreneurial students.

Friday’s presentation grew out of an earlier invitation from the UO Board of Trustees. Following a Dec. 12, 2014, presentation on sponsored research during the board’s last official visit to campus, trustees asked the Office of the Vice President for Research & Innovation to prepare a presentation on “Innovation, Tech Transfer and Economic Framework” at UO.

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