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Laura Gardner
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Incubating Inventions

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Irene Abrams, Executive Director of the Office of Technology Licensing

Before coming to Brandeis two and a half years ago to lead the Office of Technology Licensing (OTL), I spent nearly two decades in the tech transfer trenches at MIT, a pioneer of university-based innovation. MIT enjoys a well-deserved reputation for excelling at university technology licensing, in large part because the office supports faculty interactions with industry on many levels and the university supports these connections through many programs.

Brandeis could benefit greatly from a similar strategy. One of my goals is to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem to support several kinds of faculty-industry relationships. These connections will lead to technology commercialization, licensing, industry-sponsored research and faculty spin-off companies, networking opportunities for students, and, ultimately, royalties to Brandeis. Many universities have built or are building such programs; the most established are the Deshpande Center at MIT and the von Liebig Center at the University of California, San Diego.

My program has three elements: faculty grants, industry mentoring programs, and networking events. Most of the activities are organized around the grants program, which will enable faculty to focus on inventions from their labs that have commercial potential but need more financial momentum to get to market. The funding will go toward proof-of-concept studies or prototyping. For example, a biology researcher may have discovered an important biological pathway, but without the funds to screen compounds, or to create an animal model of the disease, it will be extremely difficult to move the technology out of the lab and into the market.

I envision small initial grants (up to $50,000), and larger follow-on grants for the most promising projects (up to $200,000). I anticipate four initial grants and one follow-on grant each year.

How will these grants help build the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Brandeis? First, we’ll organize a group of judges from industry to work with my office to help evaluate the grant applications for commercial potential. Then, grantees will be matched with industry volunteers in their field for an industry perspective. Volunteers will help set milestones and provide introductions to potential licensees, entrepreneurs, and industry partners. Finally, we will hold an end-of-year science showcase on campus at which inventors present their projects to a broad group of industry leaders, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and alumni and friends.

I call this model an incubator because, beyond supporting faculty already interested in tech transfer, it will nurture researchers who might not yet be thinking of commercializing their discoveries. The incubator will also provide internships for students interested in technology commercialization and the business of science, and it will be a focal point for the many people at Brandeis interested in the intersection of business and science.

So what will it cost? I anticipate it will require an investment of $2 million for a five-year run, which would be enough time to reap the benefits of the project. However, we could start incubating discoveries with a smaller investment, say $1 million over the first three years. Funding for other university incubators has come from donors, venture capitalists, royalties on licensing inventions, state and federal grants, and foundations, such as the Kaufmann Foundation.

I believe my incubator will help focus alumni and friends on our innovative science and our inventors, hatching connections that will benefit the university, our scientists, and our students in countless ways.

Want to learn more or become involved? Please contact me at iabrams@brandeis.edu.