Advice for University Translational Research to Close the Valley of Death

kml0000Updated September 2016

In her Wall Street Journal article “Universities Push Harder Into Realm of Startups,” reporter Ruth Simon observed that “universities are stepping up efforts to create ‘spinouts,’ or business startups born from some of the cutting-edge research of their students or faculty. Some schools are creating funds that help cover startup costs.”

Another funding trend focuses on an earlier segment of the commercialization pipeline, seeking to address what Simon rightly observed as an obstacle to university spinouts: “Technologies emerging from research labs are often embryonic.”

This trend, known as translational or gap funding, is becoming more and more common for technology transfer offices (TTOs). Universities that have launched or increased translational research funding recently include Washington StateEmoryLouisiana State; UC-Davis; and multi-university collaborations such as the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute and the Arkansas Research Alliance. And back in 2006, Boston University launched its Ignition Awards program to “help bridge the gap between government funded research in basic science and the product development work performed either by commercial or non-profit entities.”

AUTM Eastern Region Meeting (ERM) Session • Sept. 29, 2016 • Fuentek’s Becky Stoughton is moderator for “B2: Found in Translation: Making the Most of Gap Funding” at the AUTM-ERM meeting in Philadelphia Sept. 29-30, 2016. Presenters from Emory, Michigan State, the Univ. of New Hampshire, and the Univ. of Vermont will examine several established translational funding programs and compare the advantages and challenges of these investments. They will also will describe the critical elements needed to establish a successful program, sharing their experiences and providing useful tips. Register for AUTM-ERM now!

Strategically funding translational research can be an excellent way to build a bridge across the “Valley of Death” that lies between discovery and commercialization success. Institutions would be well served by keeping these best practices in mind when designing such programs.

Proceed in Phases

In the same way Fuentek advises TTOs to process license applications in phases, consider requiring researchers to successfully complete a less-onerous first step before being invited to prepare a full proposal. This approach has several advantages:

  • Researchers who have not yet submitted an invention disclosure might apply, allowing the TTO to identify innovations that still need to enter the commercialization pipeline.
  • It is more efficient to do a rapid first-pass of many shorter “pre-proposals” and save the time-consuming, full-proposal evaluation for a smaller number of qualifying projects. (Sound familiar?)
  • Researchers whose projects are unable to “pass” the initial phase are spared the time/effort of preparing a detailed proposal and can receive feedback that could help them on their next application.

Match the Market

To avoid throwing good money after bad, make market-fit a key criterion in awarding funds. You could require applicants to include market research in their proposals and/or dovetail the program with your own technology evaluation process (e.g., researchers meeting minimum market-fit requirements in the TTO’s analysis are invited to apply for translational funds).

Compare Apples to Apples

To make it easier to determine the strength of each proposed research effort, provide applicants with a template that they must follow in preparing their proposals. Requiring researches to include their information in specified sections such as the following facilitates comparisons and evaluations:

  • Technology description – Half a page is sufficient.
  • Benefits of the innovation – If there are no advantages over alternate technologies, it will not likely garner market interest.
  • How will it be used – If it’s just for research, it is not likely a good candidate for translational funding.
  • Plan for the funding – What will they do to increase commercialization potential and decrease risk?
  • Milestones – These are real goals to be met to help ensure they are progressing.

Measure Twice

Just as a new/reorganized TTO needs specific metrics, so too do new programs within the TTO. In benchmarking and tracking the outcomes of translational investments, begin by determining the goal for the program (and don’t forget to set the award evaluation criteria to align with that goal). For more on this topic, see my “Redefining Metrics” blog post and our white paper “How’d We Do?: Establishing Useful Technology Transfer Metrics.” Some metrics to consider for a translational funding program could include:

  • Change in technology readiness level – TRL definitions stem from NASA.
  • Number of awards per number of applications – Tracks the trend in popularity of the program.
  • Number of new agreements
  • New funding* (e.g., sponsored research or federal grants)
  • Value of licenses*

*Note: The last two items provide direct insight into return on investment, especially when compared to how much funding the technology received.

Has your TTO begun offering translational funding? Tell us about your experience by sending me a private message.

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Posted by Laura Schoppe

3 Responses to Advice for University Translational Research to Close the Valley of Death

  1. Kerry Swift says:

    Per usual, this post on translational funds is very helpful, especially the metrics! Thought I’d add one more flavor of funding to the discussion–faculty run translational programs. Stanford has SPARK (http://sparkmed.stanford.edu/) and it is closely connected to the TLO. Here at the University of Vermont, SPARKvt is expanding to the whole campus after a two year beta in the College of Medicine (http://www.uvm.edu/sparkvt/). Wish us luck on the expansion!

  2. Laura Schoppe says:

    Kerry, thank you for the kind words and congratulations on a successful pilot program. Starting small and then expanding is a great approach that helps reduce risk and build support from faculty, administration, investors, and other stakeholders. The availability of workshops and lectures is also a great tool for outreach while educating the community on how to be more effective in their efforts. I hope the expansion goes smoothly and we’ll keep an eye out for your success stories.

  3. Marc Sedam says:

    UNH is also starting a fund we’re calling Wildcatalysts, funded by alumni. We’ve asked for a $20,000 commitment over three years which should put about $500,000 to work in translational research funding over that period. It’s not a ton of money, but it will do wonders for us.