Think you know what's happening at university tech transfer offices? Think again. Graphic by Miguel 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.

UH has launched its Tech Map, which visualizes startup and innovation activity across the city. Photo via Getty Images

University of Houston launches interactive map of the city's innovation ecosystem

introducing tech map

The greater Houston area spans 9,444 square miles — an area larger than the entire state of New Jersey — and the question was never if Houston's sprawl was going to affect interaction between startups, resources, and opportunities, but how to overcome these physical challenges with digital solutions. The latest of which has launched out of the University of Houston's Technology Bridge.

The Tech Map — an interactive, embeddable visualization that takes data about startups and other innovation players and compiles it into a map of entrepreneurial activity in the Houston area — has officially launched with hundreds of startups represented already.

"This kind of tool — it really tells you where innovation is happening, it's not just in the startup development organizations," says Lindsay Lewis, executive director of communications for the UH Division of Research. "It's amazing to see that it's happening all over the city."

The tool, which is free to embed and available to anyone, is already live on Houston Exponential's homepage and the city of Houston's Innovation Portal. It's comprised of data submitted by startup development organizations, self-submitted information, and research by the Tech Bridge's team.

To be represented on the map, click here.

Lewis stresses the importance of creating the tool in a collaborative way, which is why bringing on partners and their databases was so key. The tool isn't designed in Cougar Red or predominantly feature UH-based startups or anything. The Tech Map isn't meant to rock the boat of what any other organization is doing, rather just visually represent the goings on.

"For us, it was a balance between trying to show the story of Houston and where innovation is happening and aggregating, but what we didn't want to do was be a replacement. We wanted this to be a resource for an individual starting point," says Chris Taylor, executive director for the Tech Bridge. "The biggest challenge for most people is you really don't know where to start."

This year has been one for digital tools focused on better portraying Houston's innovation ecosystem. This summer, Houston Exponential launched the HTX TechList to virtually connect startups, mentors, investors, and other movers and shakers in Houston. The two entities are collaborative — HTX TechList's data is even involved in the Tech Map.

"There was a need for connection," Taylor says. "Since 2013 when I got here, that's always been a challenge and a hurdle. How do we connect all these different stakeholders in a way that's meaningful."

While the map is launched and ready to be used, it's only the beginning for it as it grows its data and adds new features.

"We're not done with this map — this is just the 1.0 version," Lewis says. "We're meeting to talk about next-step functionalities and where we are going to take it."

Houston-based Sensytec founder gives his advice for accelerating your startup. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston-founded company shares its lessons learned from accelerator programs

Houston Voices

A startup accelerator provides promising companies with an opportunity to boost their chances of marketing their technologies. These programs help small companies pivot their technologies strategically, interface with industry sectors and engage with mentor network to better pitch their ideas to the market.

Unfortunately, most startups will never have the chance to participate in an accelerator. But the information gained from such an experience can be valuable knowledge for all entrepreneurs who wish to accelerate their business.

Sensytec – a UH startup that developed smart cement to monitor the health of structures – was recently accepted into the Techstars Energy Accelerator. Techstars Energy is a highly competitive accelerator in Norway that partners with Equinor, Kongsberg, and Mckinsey to find sustainable technologies for the energy industry. Sensytec's smart cement technology is being considered for use in new oil and gas wells and concrete structures.

Sensytec president Ody De La Paz learned quite a bit about what companies are looking for when it comes to new technology and what entrepreneurs can do to boost their startups.

Understand where your tech fits into the market

Though joining Techstars to better position their smart cement technology to energy companies, De La Paz has learned the many ways in which his company's tech could be positioned to other markets.

"Recognizing the way the market is moving is critical to successfully pitching your tech to customers," he says. "But you have to be honest with yourself – your target market may not be the one you need to pitch your tech to make money."

According to De La Paz, this is where many inventors may miss their opportunity to profit.

"It's understandable that many researchers and inventors are passionate about the one problem they are trying to solve," he says. "But the real trick is trying to discover the solution currently needed by industry sectors – and that is continually changing."

His recommendation? Be open to any opportunity.

"It's not so much about you or your technology," he says. "It's about how your technology fits within an industry's business strategy. It's always about what the company needs, so there may be different applications to consider."

Focus on company values

Every decision made by industry will be focused on the bottom line. It's business, after all. But in addition to providing a high-value, low-cost solution for companies, aligning your tech with company core values may win over a few more hearts.

"Because we know that Equinor has a 'safety first' approach and values sustainability, we put together a solid business case to reflect those values," says De La Paz.

Current technologies used to monitor cement are not as accurate as they should be, says De La Paz. This leads to very costly solutions. So Sensytec built a business case that outlines how their technology accurately reports when cement loses structural health, allowing companies to proactively fix problems before they become disasters.

"We know exploration and drilling will continue," he says. "But if we can show how our technology is not only cost effective, but a safer choice for oil and gas companies like Equinor, we will align with their values and that's very important to them."

Seek feedback — and lots of it

One of the things De La Paz has experienced while in the Techstars Energy accelerator is the value of feedback.

In fact, he says you can't get enough of it, that every piece of feedback, every perspective gained is another clue that helps you figure out if your technology is needed and, if so, how to pitch it.

Here's what he suggests:

1. Interview as many customers as possible

According to De La Paz, every person working in that industry has perspective. He and his team have interviewed hundreds of experts, from the architect to the concrete manufacturer to subcontractors. "It's important to understand your customer and how they think about our technology," he says.

2. Find mentors

In addition to interviewing customers, select a few as mentors. Business leaders, strategists, and even everyday users, can help you toss around ideas.

3. Be honest with yourself

When you receive the feedback, be honest with yourself, says De La Paz. You may be better suited for another market or you may need to pivot your technology, but this will not happen if the feedback is not used wisely.

De La Paz also stress the value of patience and persistence during this process.

"It's a very long process and there's a lot you have to consider," he says. "But if you stay on top of everything and follow through, it will help your startup get moving more quickly."


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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Lindsay Lewis is the director of strategic research communications at UH.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.