By G. Chambers Williams, The Tennessean
Tennessee's well-funded university research centers generate great
ideas for an almost infinite variety of new products and services.
But most of those innovations never reach the marketplace, never create jobs or spawn new companies.
more discoveries could be channeled to entrepreneurs and backed by
investors, technology transfer experts say the result would be more
startup businesses and a wave of additional jobs for Tennessee. The
trick is devising processes to more easily turn research into commercial
products, and rewarding those who give birth to the novel ideas.
at least 13 percent of all new Tennessee jobs come from small-business
startups, according to state data. But there's a frustrating disconnect
that plugs up the pipeline. Tennessee ranks eighth among states in the
volume of federal grants its research centers receive - pulling in
nearly $2.5 billion last year.
Yet, it ranks 41st in jobs created from those research dollars, according to a report by the Kauffman Foundation.
"We fall in the rankings every year, so we need to invest
more in these types of (entrepreneurial) activities," said James
Stover, former director of operations at the state-funded Tennessee
Technology Development Corp., or TTDC, which strives to bridge the gap
between scientists in the lab and consumers in the marketplace.
that end, the TTDC in August will kick off a major initiative called
Launch Tennessee to help move innovations to commercialization through
tie-ins with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
"You need the talent, the intellectual property and the money," Stover said.
Launch Tennessee idea will be presented to the TTDC board in early
August, and many of its provisions should be in place by the end of
September, said Brad Smith, who took over June 1 as president and chief
executive of the organization.
TTDC's stated goal is "aligning
public and private research institutions with business-development
organizations and the investment community to increase the number of
high-skill, high-wage jobs."
"What we realized is that for these research efforts to have a long-term impact on job
growth, we really needed to figure out how to create an entity to serve
as a hub for inventors and investors," said Smith, who came from
Knoxville to work in the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community
Development at the start of Gov. Bill Haslam's administration.
put together a five-year plan for Launch Tennessee, and one of the
major goals is to connect capital with technology and entrepreneurs,"
Other irons in fire
The state already has committed $30 million to what it calls the
Incite Fund to help startup companies, and the TTDC will work to funnel
money to new firms through such federal programs as Small Business
Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR), Smith said.
top research institutions are on board, too, including Vanderbilt
University, which operates its own Center for Technology Transfer and
Commercialization. Others include Oak Ridge National Laboratories, the
University of Tennessee Research Foundation and St. Jude's Children's
Research Hospital in Memphis.
The Vanderbilt center's main purpose
is to protect discoveries coming from the university's labs by
obtaining patents on them, and then push for commercial use of those
innovations, said director Alan Bentley, the university's assistant vice
chancellor for technology transfer.
Vanderbilt registered an
all-time high of 167 new inventions last year and obtained 31 U.S.
patents, up from 27 in 2001 and seven in 1991. The university received
more than $9.2 million in revenues in 2011 from all outstanding licenses
of its inventions - up from just $1.7 million in 2001 and $137,000 in
While Vanderbilt has never had a huge commercial success
like the University of Florida's Gatorade, a reading-intervention
program called Read 180 (distributed by Scholastic) is used in 10,000 or
more schools nationwide.
Among innovative technologies that haven't found commercial
applications yet is a so-called wearable robot, basically a mechanical
exoskeleton that a paraplegic can strap onto his or her lower body to
enable the ability to walk. It's been in development since 2009, and
there are working prototypes in the Vanderbilt School of Engineering.
in the engineering school are other devices aiming for eventual
commercial use, including a "multigrasp prosthetic hand," though it and
the exoskeleton remain "years away" from coming to market, Bentley said.
Neither breakthrough has secured investors to help make or market the
products on a broader scale, although Vanderbilt has begun looking for
The mechanical hand has its fans, among them,
55-year-old Hector Torres of Millington, Tenn., an amputee who
demonstrated the multigrasp hand in the laboratory this month under the
guidance of graduate student Skyler Dalley.
"This is the most
advanced prosthetic hand I've ever seen, and I've had a variety of them
over the years," said Torres, who volunteered to be a test subject. He
was injured more than two decades ago.
At a glance
In the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, Dr. Jeffrey Sonsino has developed
Low Vision Readers, special eyeglasses for patients who have such
conditions as macular degeneration. The glasses combine high-intensity
LED lights with strong lenses to help some patients read again.
Williams, 65, of Mayfield, Ky., whose failing vision has kept him from
being able to read for the past two years, tried the Low Vision Readers
during a recent visit to the eye institute and was impressed.
"I can't believe it," he said. "I can read again. I'm going to want a pair of these of my own."
1,000 pairs have been produced already to test the glasses for their
potential demand, and if sales of those go well, the university will
look for an investment partner
to ramp up production to commercial scale, Bentley said. Although no
prices have been announced, the university's goal is to make them
affordable for most patients.
Other seemingly good ideas seem to
stand little chance of making it out of university labs to commercial
success, even though they're neat concepts.
Among them is a new
mosquito repellent that is said to be 1,000 times more effective than
DEET, but it probably would never be a success just as a bug repellent,
said its developer, Lawrence Zwiebel, a Vanderbilt professor of
As a repellent, it could save lives in
developing countries by preventing the spread of malaria, which is
carried by mosquitoes. But any company that tried to develop it for
commercial use would probably have to spend upward of $200 million to
ramp up production, Zwiebel said.
Still, there's a potential
commercial use of the repellant as an agricultural insecticide, Zwiebel
said, and there is strong interest from at least one large agri-chemical
So far, though, the only funding for Zwiebel's research
has come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provides
money for a variety of humanitarian projects.
But there's a hidden rub in the state's bid to create jobs within Tennessee's borders with university inventions.
because the new technology is broad or unproven, companies won't take
it on," Bentley said. "Without a strong regional network of angel
investors, it can be hard to capitalize on risky, (but) promising
Gregory Reed, associate vice chancellor for research at
the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said the state needs more
incubators on campuses, where novel concepts can take baby steps.
don't have sufficient facilities in this state to help get new
companies operating," Reed said. "We need space to help them start
generating revenue ... and even start the first level of manufacturing,
but we don't have those."
On the venture capital side, there are firms such as Nashville's
Solidus Co. that are funding startups using technology coming from
research centers or individual inventors, said Vic Gatto, a founding
"There is a great opportunity for our state from a lot of
innovative technology that hasn't been capitalized on," Gatto said. "I
set up a company in Oak Ridge to specialize in the process of taking raw
technology from various labs and pairing it with a management team to
create for-profit companies."
The biggest challenge, he said, is
"creating a marriage between technology that has promise and someone
outside the lab who can devote full time to it."
Some other states
seem far ahead of Tennessee, including California, which ranks third
nationally for the rate at which new patents are secured.
"Stanford (University) has done a great job in California doing this, and it helps build the whole economy there," Gatto said.
don't know if we could ever be as good at it as California, but we
could do a lot better. We have the scientists in the labs, so we're
halfway there. We just need to get the commercialization piece in