Universities Reach OutPaula Moore
The state's major research universities have long hosted technology transfer offices, whose staff members help bridge the gaps between academic research and the commercial world.
Now, thanks in part to the recent brutal recession and the need to ensure the health of vital industries, even more focus is being placed on critical technology transfer initiatives.
"We're very much a key player in the ecosystem of entrepreneurship," said Todd Headley, president of CSU Ventures, a nonprofit group that helps Colorado State University in Fort Collins with its technology transfer. "We definitely have an impact on Colorado's economy through jobs created and money raised."
Tech transfer in Colorado doesn't yet match the volume taking place in Massachusetts and California, but it's getting there, according to experts in the field.
"We're nowhere in the realm of the MITs and Stanfords of the world, which really have tech transfer nailed down," said Stephen Miller, Rocky Mountain Incubation Collaborative board member and former president/CEO of the CleanLaunch Technology Incubator in Golden. "But we're improving. It takes that combination of talent, capital and ideas."
University tech transfer offices work with faculty and staff to help stimulate innovation, preserve ownership of their intellectual property and stimulate the Colorado economy, according to the schools.
For example, the Office of Technology Transfer at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden manages the patenting and licensing of intellectual property developed at the school. CU's Technology Transfer Office — which serves the university's Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver and Anschutz campuses — analyzes the commercial feasibility of intellectual property and helps develop strategies for its commercialization.
Incubators such as the Rocky Mountain Innosphere in Fort Collins, which works with CSU and CSU Ventures, help young companies with little or no revenue receive the mentoring and other resources they need to get on a solid footing. They help companies develop business plans, protect their intellectual property with trademarks or copyrights, and decide what corporate form — LLC, C corporation, etc. — to adopt.
In 2012, the RMI had 35 client companies in industries such as cleantech and bioscience, with roughly 200 employees total. Those companies raised nearly $20 million last year.
"That's the biggest challenge — raising capital," said Mike Freeman, CEO of the Innosphere.
Toward that end, the RMI is helping to reinvigorate Colorado's angel network with the creation early this year of the Colorado Angel Investors Inc. investment club. The Innosphere also recently partnered with the Colorado Enterprise Fund and Loveland-based Home State Bank to establish a $500,000 early-stage debt pool for its startup companies.
In Aurora, the Fitzsimons BioScience Incubator has helped launch 50 companies since it opened in 2000.
"Incubators are catalysts for growing businesses," said Vicki Jenings, director of business relations at the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority in Aurora, which runs the bioscience incubator. "We're taking advantage of the fact that the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is next door; it's a catalyst for a lot of spinoff activity."
The incubator currently has 37 companies "growing here," according to Jenings.
Among companies the Fitzsimons incubator has helped launch is Myogen Inc., a biopharmaceutical company acquired by Gilead Sciences Inc. for $2.5 billion in 2006. Myogen develops and commercializes small molecule therapies for cardiovascular disease, including Flolan, which is used to treat pulmonary hypertension.
"The incubation model has a 25-year track record," said Jasper Welch, a board member of the Rocky Mountain Incubation Collaborative board, and a former Durango mayor. "It's probably the most proven of the various business-growth models."
Other models are also cropping up, including a sort of tough love, fast-track approach known as an accelerator. Boulder-based TechStars, which calls itself the No. 1 accelerator in the world, helps strengthen young, relatively solid companies through mentorship and investment. TechStars invests $118,000 in each client, but also works to help these startups get funding from angel investors and venture capitalists. Clients each raise an average of $1.4 million in outside capital after leaving TechStars, according to the accelerator.
Where incubators generally have an open-ended time frame for businesses, accelerators have finite start and stop dates; TechStars' clients get three months.
"An accelerator is more like a boot camp," said the RMIC's Miller. "There's a competitive process to get in, and a set time frame."
Colorado State University in Fort Collins uses three "superclusters" to turn its research into real-world businesses as fast as possible. The superclusters are alliances of faculty members focused on research in infectious diseases, cancer prevention and clean energy, who collaborate with economists and business experts "to bridge the vastly different worlds of business and academia," according to the university.
"CSU has really made a concerted effort to blossom in the area of technology transfer — to see a return on investment, so to speak," said Bill Farland, CSU vice president of research. "If we look at the way the superclusters have affected technology transfer, they really have been the flood that raises all boats."
A new report, the Colorado Innovation Index, gives the state high marks for its research and development activity, its well-educated populace, and its entrepreneurial activity, particularly in technology sectors. But Colorado's educational attainment is slipping and its small businesses are able to generate only average returns. The report was produced by the Colorado Innovation Network, a new group formed to help the state track and improve new business creation.
Still, the state generates high marks for patents and the interest of venture capitalists.
In 2011, for instance, Colorado ranked third, behind California and Massachusetts, for patents, generating more than 450 patents per million residents that year. And in 2012, MoneyTree ranked Colorado the fourth-leading destination for early stage venture capital.
Four Key Findings:
Talent: Colorado has the most workers with a bachelor's degree or higher in the country, lagging only one state, Massachusetts. But Colorado has slipped in educating its own residents.
Ideas: Colorado issued more than 450 patents per million residents, one of the leading rates in the nation.
Capital: Colorado gets a healthy dose of public funding from Small Business Innovative Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Grants, though it is below other states in terms of National Institutes of Health funding.
Entrepreneurship: Colorado ranks well here, especially in its high concentration of self-employed workers, but the returns these entrepreneurs generate are only average.
Source: Colorado Innovation Network.
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