I was recently chatting with folks in the technology transfer office (TTO) at the University of Vermont (UVM). They asked Fuentek to help again this year with evaluating proposals for the SPARK-VT gap funding program. SPARK-VT is designed “to address the challenges of translating novel research into the community” by funding additional research and commercialization.
Last year, Fuentek was asked to help evaluate proposals. We provided comprehensive written assessments of each innovation’s market potential. We also commented on whether the advances proposed by the principal investigator (PI) would help move the technology forward to the next step in commercialization.
I’m happy to say that UVM found Fuentek’s reports useful. The SPARK-VT judging panel—composed of experts from the legal, technology, pharmaceutical, regulatory, and venture capital sectors—used them as a factor in scoring the proposals. The PIs also used them to finalize their proposal presentations and generally move forward more successfully with the additional knowledge we provided about the commercial landscape.
“De-Risking” Technology for Commercialization
Gap funding programs like SPARK-VT’s can greatly contribute to technology transfer success. Why? Because they can play a major role in “de-risking” technologies sufficiently to attract licensee interest. This is especially true when they fund activities that help answer key commercialization questions. For example:
- Building a workable prototype answers the Does it really work? question.
- Testing actual performance—especially in areas most important to establish commercial viability (i.e., address industry pain points)—answers the How does it compare? question.
Gap funding programs are ideal when technologies are too early in their development to attract a licensee and too far along for the basic research funding universities typically access.
Today I’d like to share with you my insights about how to run an effective gap funding program.
Take an Impact-Based Focus
Focus on technologies that have the potential to advance rapidly into a commercialization pathway. Proposals should identify specific tasks that move the technology towards a commercial application. Require that funds be applied only to those tasks and that selected projects meet milestones and metrics to demonstrate steady progress.
Establish IP-Specific Eligibility Requirements
Ensure that technologies not owned by your institution are identified—and eliminated—early in the process. For example, SPARK-VT requires potential applicants an opportunity to contact the TTO before developing their proposals to determine the technology’s intellectual property (IP) status.
Promote the Program to PIs
No one wants to throw a party and have no one show up. So, be sure to let potential participants know about the program. Beyond including it on your website, consider promoting the gap funding program via the institution’s communications channels, social media, and/or presentations/flyers to research departments.
Help PIs Prepare to Apply
Providing appropriate support to applicants helps ensure you will have high-quality proposals from which to choose the best projects. Here are some suggestions:
- Announce the evaluation criteria: Letting PIs know the evaluation criteria gives them a target to shoot for
- Give them a structure: Providing an outline with reasonable requirements jump-starts a PI’s proposal development effort and facilitates apples-to-apples comparison of proposals that all include relevant information.
- Educate them about technology commercialization: For example, SPARK-VT requires applicants to attend—or watch webinar recordings for—a series of lectures on commercialization topics. (Check out these Fuentek insights on educating researchers.)
- Give them a chance to improve: Provide written feedback on their proposals so that PIs can do better if reapplying next year. Better yet, have a gated application process and provide feedback along the way. As applicants progress to the next stage, their proposals will get stronger and stronger.
Speaking of which…
Evaluate Proposals in Phases
Structure the process to start small and then require increasing levels of effort by PIs as they pass each stage. Pre-screen the initial submissions to identify (and eliminate) any proposals with red flags or that do not have an impact on advancing the technology toward commercialization.
Carefully Select the Judges
Structure the panel of evaluators according to your goals for the program. A diverse panel of industry experts can provide broad viewpoints and might be able to provide valuable connections for the PIs of the selected proposals. Alternatively, a focused panel of commercialization experts is poised to apply the evaluation criteria fairly, transparently, and consistently. To get the best of both worlds, take SPARK-VT’s approach, which leveraged Fuentek and industry evaluators.
Monitor PI Progress
Selecting proposals to fund marks the start of the next chapter in gap funding. Protect your investment by following up and monitoring the milestones. Build regular check-ins into the project schedule, encouraging PIs to report on not only their progress but also the challenges they are facing. Provide input and advice, possibly leveraging the industry experts who originally evaluated the proposals.
Provide Ongoing Support
Whenever possible help the PIs follow through on the next step, connecting them with resources. Your TTO might be able to, for example, introduce the PI to a contract research organization (CRO) to screen the compounds or watch for the management resources a PI will need as efforts progress toward a startup.
We’re thrilled that UVM found Fuentek’s support so valuable to the SPARK-VT program, and we look forward to participating again this coming year. If you want to get more bang from your gap-funding buck, contact us to discuss how Fuentek can support your program with project-specific market assessments and strategic solutions.