eavesdropping in houston

Overheard: Houston experts discuss how to navigate tech transfer

Panelists from the University of Houston and Houston Methodist discussed tech transfer challenges and opportunities for academic innovators. Photo courtesy

Groundbreaking and disruptive innovations across industries are coming out of research institutions, and their commercialization process is very different from other startups.

An expert panel within Technology transfer discussed some of the unique obstacles innovators face as they go from academia into the market — like patenting, funding, the valley of death, and more.

Missed the conversation? Here are eight key moments from the panel that took place at the University of Houston's Technology Bridge on Wednesday, May 19.

This event was hosted by InnovationMap and University of Houston.

“If your technology can immediately impact some industry, I think you should license out your technology. But if you think that the reward is much higher and does not yet match something in the industry, you should go the high risk, high reward path of doing it yourself. That’s a much more challenging. It takes years of work.”

— Hadi Ghasemi, co-founder of Elemental Coatings and Cullen associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, says on how tech transfer usually happens via those two pathways. Ghasemi explains that it also depends on the academic's passion for the product and interest in becoming an entrepreneur.

“There’s a mismatch in that you can have a really clinically impactful technology but still not have money to develop it into a product.” 

— Rashim Singh, co-founder of Sanarentero and a research assistant professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy, says on the different priorities from within academia and within the market.

“What I’ve seen is if you know you want to patent something, tell the right people early. Make sure you have the right players involved. Our tech office already has venture, Pharma, etc. partners that can help with the patent process.”

— Ginny Torno, administrative director of innovation and IT clinical systems at Houston Methodist

“You don’t need to be fully transparent about your technology. As a company, you need to have some secret sauce."

— Ghasemi says on the patent and paper publishing process. Academics are used to publishing their research, but when it comes to business, you need to hold some things close to the chest.

“One of the most important piece the UH Tech Bridge has provided is the wet lab space to develop these technologies a little further toward commercialization. … Wet lab is very precious space in Houston specifically because there isn’t much here.”

— Singh says on how important access to lab space is to the entrepreneur.

"“You’re starting to see more and more organizations that have innovation arms. ... There are a lot of focus on trying to make Houston another innovation hub, and I think there is more support now than even a few years ago.”

— Torno says on what's changed over the past few years, mentioning TMC3 and the Ion.

“Try to serve private capital as soon as possible. The grant money comes, and those are good and will help you prove out your technology. But once you have private money, it shows people care about your product.”

— Ghasemi says as a piece of advice for potential tech transfer entrepreneurs.

“The biggest gap is to arrange for funding — federal, private, etc. — to support during the valley of death.”

— Singh says on the struggle research-based startups, especially in drug discovery, faces as they fight to prove out their product and try to stay afloat financially.

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Building Houston

 
 

Students from the University of Houston are celebrating a win at a national competition focused on carbon innovation. Photo via UH.edu

A team of students from the University of Houston have placed in the top three teams for a national competition for the Department of Energy.

The inaugural American-Made Carbon Management Collegiate Competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, or FECM, tasked the student teams with "proposing regional carbon networks capable of transporting at least one million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from industrial sources," according to a news release from DOE.

“With this competition, DOE hopes to inspire the next generation of carbon management professionals to develop carbon dioxide transport infrastructure that will help drive technological innovation and emissions reductions, new regional economic development, and high-wage employment for communities across the United States,” Brad Crabtree, assistant secretary of fossil energy and carbon management at DOE, says in the release.

GreenHouston, the University of Houston team mentored by Assistant Professor Jian Shi from the UH Cullen College of Engineering, took third place in the competition, securing a $5,000 cash prize. Sequestration Squad of University of Michigan secured first place and $12,000 and Biggest Little Lithium of the University of Nevada won second and a $8,000 prize.

The UH team's proposal was for an optimized carbon dioxide transportation pipeline for the Houston area. The presentation included cost analysis, revenue potential, safety considerations, weather hazards, and social impact on neighboring communities, according to a release from UH.

“We chose the greater Houston metropolitan area as our target transition area because it is a global hub of the hydrocarbon energy industry,” says Fatemeh Kalantari, team leader, in the release.

“Our team was committed to delivering an optimized and cost-effective carbon dioxide transfer plan in the Houston area, with a focus on safety, environmental justice, and social engagement,” she continues. “Our goal is to ensure the health and safety of the diverse population residing in Houston by mitigating the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions from refineries and industries in the area, thus avoiding environmental toxicity.”

With the third place win, GreenHouston will get to present their proposal at DOE’s annual Carbon Management Research Project Review Meeting slated for August.

"We are thrilled to see the exceptional work and dedication displayed by the GreenHouston team in this competition," said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at UH. "The team’s innovative proposal exemplifies UH’s commitment to addressing the pressing global issue of carbon management and advancing sustainable practices. We wish the students continued success."

The team included four Cullen College of Engineering doctoral students from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering – Kalantari, Massiagbe Diabate, Steven Chen, and Simon Peter Nsah Abongmbo – and one student, Bethel O. Mbakaogu, pursuing his master’s degree in supply chain and logistics technology.

The prize money will go toward funding additional research, refining existing technologies, addressing remaining challenges and raising awareness of CCUS and its project, according to the release, as the team feels a responsibility to continue to work on the GreenHouston project.

“The energy landscape by 2050 will be characterized by reduced greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air quality, and a more sustainable environment,” Kalantari says. “The transition to green energy will not only mitigate the harmful effects of carbon dioxide on climate change but also create new jobs, promote economic growth, and enhance energy security. This is important, and we want to be part of it.”

The team of students plans to continue to work on the GreenHouston project.

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