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MIT Spins-Off 32 Start-Ups in 2018

Lesley Millar-Nicholson

Lesley Millar-Nicholson describes technology transfer at MIT (A. Kotok)

16 Feb. 2019. Research done at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018 led to creation of 32 new start-up enterprises as well as hundreds of licenses and patents. Lesley Millar-Nicholson, director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, revealed these statistics yesterday at the American Association for Advancement of Science, or AAAS, annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Millar-Nicholson was one of 3 speakers on a panel describing technology transfer at universities and national laboratories, as well as upcoming changes in U.S. government technology transfer policies. Technology transfer is the process of converting new ideas into tangible products or services, and includes intellectual property protection and licensing, new venture creation and incubation, and economic development, according to AUTM, the group that used to be called Association of University Technology Managers.

MIT, says Millar-Nicholson, benefits from its record as a leading science and engineering institution, as well as long-standing policies that encourage collaboration with business. She notes that MIT’s first outreach to industry began in the 1930s, and formal business liaison office opened in 1948. In addition, its location in Cambridge, Massachusetts puts the campus in close proximity to many businesses large and small, making it possible for “collisions with the private sector” in nearby coffee houses and bars. More important, however, are some 50 incubators in the vicinity of MIT offering coworking or lab space, funding, networking, mentors, and internships.

Rather than leave the innovation process to chance, MIT offers 85 different programs on innovation and entrepreneurship. As a result of this supportive environment, says Millar-Nicholson, MIT turned its $1.7 billion in sponsored research funding last year into 822 disclosures — the initial documentation of a new technology — 425 new patent applications, 360 patents issued, 154 licensing and option deals, and 32 new start-up companies.

She adds that despite its name, MIT’s Technology Licensing Office does much more than manage intellectual property. Her group is taking on more responsibility in helping students and faculty find external entrepreneurship programs from the federal government, like National Science Foundation’s I-Corps, and those in the community. Millar-Nicholson advises, however, not to try replicating the MIT experience elsewhere. In her previous job, for example, she needed to build a university’s technology transfer and entrepreneurship programs almost from scratch.

William Farris, an associate lab director at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, in Golden, Colorado, described a much different approach to technology transfer. Farris, responsible for innovation outreach at NREL says his organization seeks out partners for converting its research findings into new products and services. This approach, says Farris, better fits the national laboratories model where the main customer is the U.S. Department of Energy that funds their work.

That work often involves conducting early-stage, high-risk basic and some applied research on energy-related technologies. And as a result, national labs in the U.S. generate more patents and licenses than any other government entities. But unlike many universities, national labs don’t produce many spin-off enterprises, choosing instead to rely on private-sector partnerships to convert research discoveries into marketable products and services.

Overall, says Farris, national labs engage with more than 3,000 external partners, mainly companies, but also state governments. At NREL, the lab has more than 700 partner relationships, with 528 individual companies. Last year alone, NREL started 272 engagements. Farris described 2 incubator programs connected to NREL — one with banking company Wells Fargo and the other with Shell — that support start-up companies advancing the lab’s research results.

Walter Copan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and director of National Institute for Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland described NIST’s Return on Investment initiative aimed at updating the U.S. government’s technology transfer policies. Copan says this initiative addresses “systemic challenges” to transferring technology to the American economy, resulting from the government’s $175 billion investment in research and development.

In December 2018, NIST issued what it calls a draft “green paper’ outlining proposals to reduce regulatory and administrative burdens, increase private sector engagement, and encourage technology entrepreneurship at federal agencies. The agency expects to issue the final ROI initiative document in March 2019.

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