Newsroom: Highlights

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06.05.14 - Uniting for Innovation

Provost/EVC Gillman: “The force behind innovation and progress in
the modern era is the modern American research university."



Innovation and entrepreneurship: oft-mentioned buzzwords, heard more and more frequently in university settings. UC Irvine is no exception and with good reason. Ongoing programs, new campus-wide initiatives and last week, a standing-room only crowd at Calit2’s Igniting Technology event point to the long-term significance of nurturing and supporting these new business models.

This spring’s installment of the semiannual Igniting Technology event was partnered with the “Innovation Series” sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown’s GO-Biz office. The goal: to promote these important concepts statewide.  Eight speakers with a wide range of experience shared current efforts and future visions.
   
Calit2 Irvine division Director G.P. Li opened the May 29 event by discussing the institute’s many programs aimed at innovation and entrepreneurship. “Our mission has always been to focus on interdisciplinary projects but also to accelerate tech transfer and help companies gain an advantage in the marketplace,” he said.

The evening’s first speaker was Howard Gillman, UCI provost and executive vice chancellor, whose message was that society benefits when universities support these initiatives.

“The force behind innovation and progress in the modern era is the modern American research university,” Gillman said, adding that by one estimate, more than one-half of economic growth in the U.S. since World War II is a result of technological innovations and entrepreneurial activity that originated in America’s research universities.

Not so long ago, all companies of a certain size had research and development units, he said. “But this age of private R&D has been replaced by an age where companies are dropping the ‘R’ and focusing on the ‘D.’ And the institutions that have responsibility for ensuring the necessary ‘R’ are, of course, research universities.”

From left: Stewart, Kai and Jenusaitis. Each promotes innovation and entrepreneurship in the state.

Gillman added that strategic attention must be focused on building an innovation ecosystem that matches up universities’ discoveries with business and government partners that can help commercialize new products and technologies.

“This responsibility is especially important for America’s great public research universities, which have been created not just to hand out degrees but to be engines of discovery, innovation, social progress and human enlightenment,” he said.

Gillman also discussed UCI’s new Institute for Innovation and its mission to help the university become Orange County’s “epicenter for innovation” by making technology transfer a strategic priority. “As our scientists and researchers explore ever deeper into the substance of the world around us and discover wondrous new things, we want to make sure that new knowledge … is relevant and useful for the world,” he concluded.
 
Orange County intellectual property law firm Knobbe Martens sponsors the Igniting Technology events, and managing partner Mike Guiliana warned the crowd of would-be entrepreneurs to consider IP ownership rights before engaging with other parties. “The worst thing you could do,” he said, “is to start working with an R&D partner without an agreement. We see that time and time again.”

 

From left: Tolentino represents the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, while Ochi and Friedman are UCI entrepreneurs.

He advised setting up shop in a university incubator, opening the door to world-class laboratories at a discount in exchange for reasonably priced license fees to the intellectual property.

Louis Stewart, GO-Biz deputy director for innovation and entrepreneurship, travels the state promoting innovation. Stewart, who asked the audience to pose for a picture for his Twitter feed before beginning his talk, said his office’s mission is to overcome a prevailing stereotype that California is not friendly to business.
 
He travels the state, he said, “working on anything ‘innovation’” but is especially energized by the UC Innovation Series. “We really want to … start telling a different story to the community about what’s happening at the universities, and really expanding the community’s knowledge about what the universities are producing.”

The University of California is “100 percent onboard,” he added, dedicating funds to host the series statewide. “We’re really looking at California’s higher education systems as sources of innovation, and workforce and economic development,” he said.

In discussing the state’s 16 iHub locations, which he described as “connecting the dots between the state’s brain trusts” and the business communities that can commercialize new ideas, he said: “Partnerships between government, industry and academia are key for setting the foundation for a new ecosystem and allowing partnerships like this one to actually happen. It allows California to collaborate to compete; that’s the mantra that GO-Biz has lived by since it was created, and that’s the mantra we’re going to keep pushing.”

Baecker: the third UCI "engine of innovation."

Startgrid is a startup dedicated to connecting entrepreneurs with resources that can help them succeed. Product director Mike Kai said the company, although it is online, is not a crowdfunding platform, a social network, an accelerator or an incubator. Instead, it provides software that “establishes a community of innovators, and connects the supply-and-demand side of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Entrepreneurs post questions, polls or updates to an online audience; Startgrid software solicits, tracks and delivers responses. “It’s challenging for entrepreneurs to connect with as many other entrepreneurs as possible, and what better way than to partner with organizations that already aim to serve those entrepreneurs, like iHub, and in turn provide tools that make it easier for those programs to communicate with their entrepreneurs,” Kai said.

Acknowledging that “knowledge-building, innovation, and research and development are going through a radical transformation,” Kai said now, more than ever, universities and communities must be hubs for innovation. “When you radically disrupt the status quo like that, you create lots of opportunities.”

Orange County’s OCTANe, which happens to be one of California’s 16 iHub locations, does just that, connecting people and ideas with capital and resources. President and CEO Matthew Jenusaitis spoke to the importance of that mission.

In the 1960s, he said, unemployment was around 4 percent, and jobs were plentiful. “Anyone who wanted a job could go out and get one. You could work hard and get ahead,” he said.

Today’s information-driven economy is different and much more challenging. “But change brings tons of opportunity. And this is where collaboration and innovation come together. By focusing our collaborative energy and resources on problems we can create solutions that will drive us forward,” Jenusaitis said.

Referring to Gillman’s designation of UCI as a catalyst for innovation, Jenusaitis inspired audience laughter when he said, “I like to think of OCTANe as the catalytic converter.” He added: “We take the innovation from the university and try to connect it with the private sector so that we can bring some of these resources into commercialization.”

OCTANe’s signature service is its LaunchPad, which evaluates startup businesses with a “predictive analytics” model, comparing them to 30 different metrics. “So we get a very clear understanding of where the company’s strengths and weaknesses are, and we can focus our development efforts on shoring up those weaknesses so they can get funded.”

Last year alone, OCTANe companies received $141 million in funding, and over the past three years, created 2,916 new jobs in Orange County.

Jenusaitis said he’s proud of those figures, adding that while the progress “is not revolutionary, it’s evolutionary. It’s in the black, and it’s moving things in the right direction.”

The event’s next speaker was Tony Tolentino, program director at Blackstone Charitable Foundation, which is partnering with UCI on a Launchpad project at the campus’s Antrepreneur Center. The Launchpad program is geared toward students who have business ideas but don’t know how to move forward. With Launchpads in 15 universities in seven states, “it’s a pretty powerful network,” that reaches 350,000 university students, Tolentino said.

The California Launchpads were announced in February of this year. In addition to the center at UCI, there are locations at UCLA and USC. “We saw something special in California, especially in Southern California,” he added. The leadership here – everyone from the elected officials to business leaders to higher education institutions – all believe in the region and they all believe in entrepreneurship.”

The next three speakers were introduced as UCI’s “engines of innovation,” for the day-to-day work they do to promote innovation at the university. David Ochi, executive director of the Antrepeneur Center/Blackstone Launchpad, showed the audience a “day-in-the-life” video, a whirlwind of activity with students scheduling appointments (or walking in) to receive one-on-one consultations and entrepreneurial guidance.

Ochi said he and center co-director Ryan Foland strive to imbue the students with an entrepreneurial spirit. “We try to help them understand what it means to be an entrepreneur and more importantly what kind of spirit it takes to be an entrepreneur,” he said.

The center offers consultations to all UCI-affiliated entrepreneurs but focuses on undergraduates. “They’re bright, bushy-tailed and they own their own IP,” Ochi said, adding that it’s important to address intellectual property that is not owned by the university. “We’re trying to find ways to use the Blackstone Launchpad as a core foundation for students and the entrepreneurial ecosystem that allows us to build the university as an epicenter. That means the ideas may not all come from us. We may not own all the IP but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be a part of that system.”

The center seeks to guide, not judge, potential entrepreneurs, and direct them to available resources on campus. “I don’t need to re-invent the entrepreneurial ecosystem; I just need to help plug students into it,” Ochi said, adding, “We’re willing to work with anyone who’s willing to be a part of the ecosystem that’s growing innovation – of any type and size.”

Charlie Baecker is director of the Donald Beall Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Paul Merage School of Business. He detailed the center’s flagship program, its annual business plan competition, which winnows approximately 500 students down to about 100 with a series of challenges. The finalists compete for $70,000 in prize money.

We talk a lot about passion,” Baecker said. “If you’re not passionate about your idea, how can you expect anybody else to be passionate about it?”

Baecker said the mission of the Beall Center is to provide education, inspiration and opportunity. “As a research university we have a special obligation to put together programs to teach our students how high-potential, high-growth ideas come out of our research. … We make it our business to make sure every student in our program understands the milestones that high-potential, high-growth companies must go through.”

He invited audience members to become involved with the center to share their ideas and expertise. “So really, what we do is help our students not only understand this construct but also how to execute on it. We want to help them learn from previous entrepreneurial generations and provide that structure.”

The evening’s last speaker was Nizan Friedman, co-founder and CEO of startup company Flint Rehabilitation Devices, which is headquartered in Calit2’s TechPortal. Friedman described – and showed a video of – the company’s inaugural device, the MusicGlove, which uses a sensor-laden glove and a musical game modeled on “Guitar Hero” to help patients regain hand function after stroke or other neurological injury.

“In rehabilitation, repetition and the intensity of movement are the most important and crucial factors toward regaining hand function,” Friedman explained. In addition, patients receive real-time feedback as they play the game, which studies show helps in their recovery as well.

Friedman, whose company sprang from his doctoral research at UCI, compared having a successful project with being at the base camp of Mt. Everest. “You’ve climbed a good amount but you’re nowhere close to getting to the end of a successful product life cycle.”

He shared tips with the audience for moving that research product from lab to marketplace successfully. Among his suggestions were: license the technology, learn to barter and negotiate, hire an attorney and develop a cogent business plan.
He also discussed raising capital, saying that those affiliated with universities should apply for small business innovation research (SBIR) grants.
 
Friedman lauded TechPortal. He listed the incubator’s ability to build credibility, mitigate conflict of interest issues, and its proximity to other labs and facilities.
 
“[TechPortal] offers the ability to use all of the resources that are available to the campus, and I’ve used those resources over and over again,” he said.
 
The presentations were followed by a barbeque dinner and lots of networking on the Calit2 courtyard.

-- Anna Lynn Spitzer

Event Presentations
Mike Kai, Startgrid
Matthew Jenusaitis, OCTANe
Tony Tolentino, Blackstone Charitable Foundation
Charlie Baecker, Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (video)
Nizan Friedman, Flint Rehabilitation