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Houston expert: 4 misconceptions of university tech transfer offices

Think you know what's happening at university tech transfer offices? Think again. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Beyond their education and research missions, universities across the nation have turned research discoveries into big business. In addition to protecting intellectual property from faculty discoveries, universities build and support startup pipelines to help researchers commercialize those technologies.

However, there are a few misconceptions when it comes to university tech transfer offices that keep faculty at bay. Here, we'll take a look at four misconceptions and explore the truth behind the thinking.

Misconception 1: Filing patent paperwork is all tech transfer offices do

While tech transfer offices are in the business of patents, many offer a full range of services to support the commercialization process. This can include everything from strategy and startup development to the establishment of enterprise and industry ventures. Many university tech transfer offices operate incubators, co-working space for startups and accelerator programs, and some even build and manage venture funds.

"At the University of Houston, we now offer lots of services to faculty, such as strategy sessions to help them understand the commercial potential of their technologies," said Chris Taylor, executive director of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation. "We also help faculty license their technologies to ensure fair use as they transition them into the market."

Misconception 2: I need to have a fully-developed idea to submit a disclosure

According to Taylor, many faculty begin interacting with tech transfer offices once they have a technology fully developed. But tech transfer offices can do much more for faculty if involved early in the process.

"Yes, we do help protect what's been developed. But, if we have a conversation at the beginning, we could help faculty shape or pivot their technologies. This will give them the greatest market potential," he said.

One of the many benefits of tech transfer offices is their ability to readily research the market.

"We can determine whether or not technologies can be disclosed, patented and licensed. It's important to know this before going through a lengthy and expensive filing process."

Misconception 3: The patent process will slow down my publication plans

Publishing researching findings may be one of the most important activities for the university researcher. However, publishing research on unprotected discoveries can result in the loss of patent rights. Therefore, filing a disclosure is very important, according to Taylor.

"Publishing is one of the best ways to market university technologies," he said. "However, industry values patented technologies, so it's better to make a small time investment to protect your IP.

Misconception 4: Getting a patent is the primary goal for tech transfer offices

As Taylor explains, the primary goal of tech transfer offices is to help faculty "transfer" their discoveries to society. And while patenting technologies is one way to do that, tech transfer offices also provide education and mentoring programs. They also support other protections such as copyrights for software.

"IP protection is important," he said. "It gives faculty control over how their technology is used, for good or for bad. So, this is an important part of the work that we do for faculty. But, we support faculty in so many other ways through the entire pipeline."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Lindsay Lewis, the author of this piece, is the executive director of communivations for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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