The University of Virginia recruited W. Mark Crowell in 2010 to lead a fundamental transformation of how U.Va. does innovation and research translation, guided by a longer-term, broader conception of the many related benefits and values.
With the transformation largely complete and widely hailed, Crowell, the founding executive director of U.Va. Innovation and associate vice president for research, will step down May 16.
“Mark is one of only a handful of people in the nation who has the experience, the vision, the temperament and the practical skills to implement a fundamental transformation and cultural shift at a major research university,” said Tom Skalak, U.Va.’s vice president for research. “Under Mark’s exemplary leadership, U.Va. Innovation has become a national model for technology transfer.”
Crowell said he will be moving to Chapel Hill, N.C., where he will do “consulting, writing and speaking about best practices in university innovation,” including those he helped develop at U.Va. He is also pursuing several avenues, he said, to “go do one more really big thing for the next five to 10 years.”
Crowell’s counterpart at Yale University, Jon Soderstrom, managing director of Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research, said that U.Va. is now among the “top five public universities” in research commercialization.
A major part of the success story is U.Va.’s Coulter Translational Research Partnership, a $20 million program that has invested about $1 million annually since 2006, typically in awards of around $100,000, into early-stage funding for U.Va.’s most promising biomedical research.
Following congressional testimony by Crowell in 2010 and 2011 noting U.Va.’s 7-to-1 return-on-investment from the “Coulter model,” it has been incorporated in two pieces of federal legislation addressing technology transfer: the Start Up Act, introduced in 2011 by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.); and the 2011 long-term reauthorization of the Small Business Innovation Research program.
Recognizing Crowell and U.Va.’s leadership on these issues, the White House invited Crowell to attend President Obama’s signing ceremony for the America Invents Act in 2011, the most sweeping reform of the U.S. patent system in several decades.
The following year, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s i6 Challenge awarded $1 million to replicate U.Va.’s “Coulter model” statewide with the Virginia Innovation Partnership, including a business mentoring program based on U.Va.’s Venture Forward and an annual venture capital event modeled on U.Va.’s Venture Summit.
In the last year alone, Crowell has been invited to speak in Brazil, China and Japan about the U.Va. approach to innovation; at the Science and Technology Policy Leadership Course offered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and at the National Institutes of Health’s new translational medicine initiative, among many others.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named U.Va. Innovation as a 2014 Intellectual Property Champion.
Last year, Crowell received the highest recognition in his field: the 2013 Bayh-Dole Award from the Association of University Technology Managers for his lifetime contributions to advancing academic innovations. His 25-year career in university innovation has included leadership posts at U.Va., the Scripps Research Institute, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Duke University.
“I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished at U.Va. Innovation over the last four years,” he said. “The opportunity to help transform and elevate the innovation enterprise at U.Va. has been an awesome and rewarding challenge. The stage is set for new goals and grander heights in the coming years for U.Va. Innovation, and it feels like the right time to move on to my next opportunity.”
Crowell recently sat down with UVA Today to reflect on how U.Va.’s approach to innovation and research translation has evolved.
Q. What is U.Va.’s approach to innovation and research translation?
A. U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson valued research making an impact in the real world. He said the University should “make science useful” and “wherever an invention proves to be useful, it ought to be tried.”
Innovation and research translation is one of the five “pillars” of U.Va.’s latest strategic plan, and U.Va. has been one of the early adopters nationally of innovation as a core competency, under Tom Skalak’s leadership.
So it’s in our U.Va. DNA, but it’s being updated for the 21st century.
In recent decades, university technology-transfer offices, including the U.Va. Patent Foundation, have been focused almost entirely on faculty research patents and resulting licensing revenue.
Our new approach, that I like to call “Tech Transfer 2.0,” takes a bigger-picture view of all the ways that research can create value beyond licensing revenue – such as by creating a new research collaboration or partnership, or providing a social benefit, like the PureMadi water filtration system for developing countries. This evolution of tech transfer is part of a larger societal shift to think more about how capitalism can be harnessed to address our biggest and most challenging social and environmental issues, a shift that has also given rise to impact investing and social entrepreneurship.
Q. What prompted this shift?
A. The broader conception of value is both reflective of a larger philosophical shift and a response to the changing market imperatives surrounding the lengthy, investment-fueled process of translating research discoveries into market-ready products, which typically involves a series of steps: patenting, proof-of-concept, a prototype, regulatory hurdles like clinical trials, market viability studies and business plans. Progress on this development path, called “de-risking,” increases the chances a product will make it to market.
Venture investor risk tolerances shrank dramatically in the wake of 9/11, and again after the 2008 stock market crash, and are now a fraction of what they had been for the 20 years up to 2001. So, universities have to help carry research further along the development path before investors will step in to help bring it to market.
I like to use a football field analogy, with 100 yards being the full distance from lab discovery to market. Universities doing basic research have always taken the ball from the goal line to about the 20-yard line. Fifteen years ago, I would say that industry and venture capital investors were hanging out at about the 30-yard line, willing to take that research the next 70 yards. Now they are hanging out at the opposite 20-yard line, and the gap that must be traversed to attract investment, called the Valley of Death, has grown from 10 to 60 yards, because the risk tolerances have shrunk so much.
At U.Va. Innovation we’re focused on helping our researchers move the ball down the field however we can. Sometimes it’s a long pass, sometimes it’s a 2-yard run.
One of U.Va.'s advantages is we have more resources to help us travel that 60 yards than most universities and we do it more adeptly than most universities.
Those resources include early-stage translational research funds such as the Ivy Foundation Biomedical Innovation Grants, the Coulter Translational Research Partnership and the Virginia Innovation Partnership.
All these programs have one key feature in common: They have research review teams composed of experts from both academia and industry. The latter have field-tested experience in bringing products to market.
Under Skalak’s leadership, researchers at U.Va. have been far more willing to engage with outside industry colleagues than any university I’ve seen. That has been a real key to our success, and a fundamental culture change that gives us a real competitive advantage over other universities.
We also created an entrepreneur-in-residence program specifically for our researchers, to provide in-house, expert guidance and mentorship on navigating the long path to commercialization.
As a result of all these forms of support, since 2005, more than 800 U.Va. research discoveries have been put on the path to commercialization, whether through patent licensing, early-stage funding or strategic research partnerships with major corporations and industry leaders such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Micron.
Q. What are some important milestones in U.Va.’s new approach to innovation?
A. The launch and branding of U.Va. Innovation in 2011 was a move away from the traditional focus on patents to emphasize a new, broader view of value, to better weave innovation into the fabric of the University.
That restructuring included a realignment of our revenue sources and incentives, so we can actually do the riskier, more diverse things that have broader or longer-term value –like student innovation competitions such as the U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup, the Vonage Challenge and the OpenGrounds Challenge in partnership with Hearst Business Media; state and federal technology transfer policy advisory work; and sharing our insights around the world.
Traditionally, university innovation has been valued by two key metrics: number of patents and resulting income. Those continue to be important measures. But we have done several things to better measure and convey the broader values and impacts of U.Va. research and innovation.
For instance, U.Va. Innovation’s online “Product Pipeline,” launched last year, shows where each U.Va. technology currently stands in the development and commercialization process, and it includes details on the later stages of the commercialization process and on social impacts.
Last fall we surveyed 53 companies built on U.Va. research discoveries, and reported on a variety of their impacts. We found those businesses have created 862 jobs, half of them in the local area. As well as employing 101 alumni, those companies have hired 92 student interns. They have generated more than $329 million in external funding, bringing $192 million into the local economy. They occupy roughly 125,000 square feet of local office and lab space. These companies are selling or developing 342 products, and they have invested $14 million in sponsored research and development at U.Va.
Beyond those metrics, our excellence in innovation – from our pipeline of startup deals and licenses, to our corporate partnerships with companies like AstraZeneca and Micron, to having an entrepreneur-in-residence like Brian Pollok, and to our pan-University innovation events which we either sponsor or help to coordinate – also helps to enhance U.Va.’s reputation and to recruit and retain the best talent, from the most senior faculty to our youngest students.
Q. How has U.Va. Innovation impacted the local entrepreneurial environment?
A. We have hit lots of milestones in the last four years that have helped the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem in many ways. Charlottesville has surpassed Northern Virginia as the epicenter of biotech in the commonwealth, and the area is also building a strong reputation for information technology, advanced materials and defense-related technology. We are seeing more companies launched, more capital raised, more value-creation events.
We’re also seeing better-quality, higher-profile deals.
For instance, New Enterprise Associates is one of the largest venture capital funds in the world and has helped launch dozens of now-influential technology companies, from TiVo to WebMD, Coursera and Vonage. NEA’s investment in the U.Va. spinoff PsiKick, announced last month, puts two top NEA partners on their board, who will now be coming to visit and inevitably meeting with other U.Va. faculty, students and alumni, as well as researchers and entrepreneurs in the local community. Every time a U.Va.-spawned company recruits a superstar to its board of directors, that is a value creation point for U.Va. and Charlottesville.
Similarly, SpermCheck fertility test inventor John Herr’s new cancer-focused company, Neoantigenics, just got first-round funding from Pfizer’s brand new Pfizer Seed Fund.
The future holds more such high-profile, high-value partnerships that will have multiplier effects.
Q. What are you proudest of?
A. First, I’d have to say the team assembled here, which is as good as anywhere in the country, pound for pound. That’s not done overnight. We’ve brought in unbelievable talent and continue to build the talent already here. Second, the recent run of high-quality deals and partnerships will have profound impact on the local innovation ecosystem for years to come. Third, the opportunity to highlight U.Va.’s best-in-class approaches to proof-of-concept research to influence innovation public policy in Richmond, Washington, and internationally is something I’m very proud of – and I believe the benefits of such engagement will continue to create value for U.Va. in many ways.