Aug. 8, 2007 -- Research universities generate a lot of ideas that can impact society, but an idea's path from ivy to impact is not always clear. The University of Virginia’s newly renamed Office of Economic Development can be seen as a navigator who can help guide ideas to market, and the market to ideas.
Pace Lochte, the veteran U.Va. administrator who directs the office — formally established in May, and an evolution of the former Virginia Gateway office — says that making connections between faculty members and representatives of companies seeking expertise in their areas is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job.
“I get them together, and sitting in on those conversations is pretty amazing,” she said. “You have the practitioner, who’s looking for real-world solutions, and you have the basic researcher, who’s doing all the cutting-edge research. Then they start talking their own language and begin taking it to an entirely new level. That’s pretty exciting to see.”
Lochte’s role is multifaceted. She can help advise faculty members who have ideas they think may be marketable. She helps introduce companies to faculty members who may be working in their field.
“We also work with local companies that want to tap into the University for resources such as student hires, spousal hires, faculty consulting, research contracts — anything that they may need to grow,” she said. “It can sometimes be confusing to understand what door you have to go through at the University, so we keep in touch with all of those groups and help make connections.”
A trio of engineering professors is among the office's fans. Travis Blalock, John Hossack and William Walker are collaborators on a device they call "Sonic Window," a hand-held ultrasound device that will allow users to "see" beneath the skin. In April 2004, they took their idea to Lochte, who introduced them to T-100, an alumni mentoring program.
"We pair U.Va. alums who are business experts with faculty entrepreneurs and give them a sort of mini board of directors and a modest amount of seed funding to get started," she explained. Founded during the dot-com boom by alumnus George McCabe, the 'T' originally stood for technology, and the 100 represents the number of companies the group sought to spin off when it started. The program's focus has now expanded, and includes many start-ups arising from the medical faculty as well, Lochte said.
Blalock, Hossack and Walker found the group's input to be golden.
"It was really valuable for us," Walker said. "There are a lot of things that you just don't know which are most important." The T-100 advisers helped them set priorities and refine their business plan. "You feel like these people really care about your success and not just what they can bill you," he said.
Besides the T-100 program, Lochte can also set faculty entrepreneurs up with the Darden School's start-up incubator and introduce them to investors.
The Office of Economic Development (www.virginia.edu/vprgs/industry/) provides an important element of the continuum from discovery to society, said Dr. R. Ariel Gomez, vice president for research and graduate studies. "It places the University in a central role," he said. "Universities are the main engine for discoveries. We probably make the biggest investment in basic discovery in our society."
The state and federal governments are keenly interested in supporting the translation of research into practical applications, and are more willing to support basic research if the University has a track record of making that leap. In turn, students benefit: research informs their education, and faculty entrepreneurship creates jobs once they graduate, Gomez noted.
"It just completes a perfect circle," he said.
Lochte's office has taken on a new emphasis, in part due to the Virginia Higher Education Restructuring Act. One of the responsibilities that came with greater operational autonomy was a charge to help stimulate the local economy. Lochte is working closely with local economic developers, small-business development centers, chambers of commerce, the state's Center for Innovative Technology and others in that effort.
Additionally, the three schools that sought the highest levels of autonomy — U.Va., Virginia Tech and the College of William & Mary — agreed to seek ways to boost economically challenged areas of the state.
Given U.Va.'s ties to its College at Wise, it has chosen Southwestern Virginia as its area of focus. Already, Lochte is supporting specific efforts to aid K-12 education, access to health care and business support in the region.
It’s all part of what the University should be doing, Gomez said.
"We are here to be part of the dialogue, part of the change in our society," he said. "We are not a separate ivory tower, where we only care about ourselves. We care about our society, and we care about our state."