Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Innovation: From campus to startup

University faculty launch new companies based on their high-tech research

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Susan Whitney⁄The Star
David Doermann, a researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park, and part-time entrepreneur, has helped create new image software for mobile phones. The software translates signs in a foreign language into English when photographed with a cell phone.
Say you’re in China and come upon a road sign in Chinese. The problem? You don’t speak Chinese. The solution: your cell phone.

That’s the idea behind new software being developed by David Doermann, a researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park, and part-time entrepreneur. Doermann is among the cadre of University of Maryland scientists launching startup businesses with the school’s help.

These faculty inventors and cutting-edge researchers are taking advantage of campus resources that fuel business development. Some are sticking with their consequent startups as advisers, but others, such as Doermann, are taking the riskier path of entrepreneurship.

One problem these high-tech innovators may encounter is that what works in the lab may not work on a large scale, said Gayatri Varma, acting executive director of the Office of Technology Commercialization at the University of Maryland, College Park. It’s a risk some companies don’t want to take, but faculty members treat these projects like their babies and want to see them mature, she said.

Alba Therapeutics Corp., a biopharmaceutical company in Baltimore, is a success story out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, school administrators say. Co-founded by a professor almost four years ago, it raised $20 million in less than two years and has grown to more than 50 employees.

Of the 50 startups that have spun out of the College Park campus over the past 10 years, most have a faculty founder or co-founder, Varma said.

Doermann has co-founded Applied Media Analysis Inc., which develops imaging software for mobile devices such as cell phones or handheld computers.

The company is creating and patenting technologies that allow camera-enabled devices to capture a sign or document in Arabic or Chinese and translate it into English, decipher barcodes and read text for the visually impaired. Arabic document reading is being tested for the Army, ‘‘and the next phase is hopefully to develop it for other languages,” Doermann said.

Software that would allow users to point a camera phone at a video barcode on a television screen and download files such as games and ring tones without cables, networks or paying service providers is also in the works.

Doermann said he started the company in 2005 with Huiping Li, a former doctoral student, after several discussions with administrators to learn about the startup process at the university. He did not have a venture-capital mentality or business expertise, which is why the venture moved into the Technology Advancement Program incubator on campus, he said.

Although this particular technology was not initially developed at the university, and is owned by Applied Media, the university-support structure was a critical part of the company’s development, he said, along with Small Business Innovation Research funding.

The school provided a ‘‘reality check,” Doermann said. ‘‘We had to prove that there was a business model [and] that we could make money.”

Pure plastic winsbest business pitch

Lawrence R. Sita is another College Park professor planning to give entrepreneurship a shot. The chemistry and biochemistry professor has been working for eight years to develop a pure form of plastic that’s free of chemicals.

Sita said that when he started, there was enough evidence in scientific literature saying that nothing would work, so he thought, ‘‘OK, we won’t have any competition.” The core portfolio of products that has evolved from Sita’s work, aside from plastics, includes waxes, adhesives, oils and lubricants.

A ‘‘professor venture fair” at the university’s Bioscience Day in November planted the entrepreneurial seed in Sita. After cramming years of research into a three-minute pitch to a judging panel of venture capitalists, Sita’s plan beat out eight others.

‘‘That really then got me thinking” that he was onto something, he said. ‘‘I’m not going to give up my day job,” but he is working on developing a business plan.

Sita gives the university, the state of Maryland and all federal agencies that financed his work a ‘‘tremendous amount of appreciation and credit for taking the risk associated with funding this research.” About $1.1 million came from the National Science Foundation, with $50,000 from the Maryland Technology Development Corp.

‘‘We would be nowhere if the University of Maryland had not provided resources in terms of lab space [and] intellectual property support,” he said.

‘‘For a faculty entrepreneur, you have to make sure he or she is committed to doing this process because it is a lot of work,” Varma said, as they must fulfill their academic responsibilities while working on their venture. That’s where another university resource, the VentureAccelerator, can help them, she said.

That program coaches faculty entrepreneurs, introducing them to venture capitalists, ‘‘and almost acts as their CEO when they need it,” she said. Varma’s department develops and manages a portfolio of diverse technologies and ensures intellectual property rights through patents or copyrights. It also negotiates and executes licensing agreements.

Whether a university fosters faculty entrepreneurship or encourages a more advisory role has a lot to do with its philosophy, said Jim Chung, director of VentureAccelerator. For some institutions, ‘‘there’s a feeling there’s no one better to champion the technology of a new company than the inventor,” he said.

The faculty member is not only an expert on the technology, ‘‘but he also wants to see his technology used in the real world, so he’s got incentive to make sure it’s successful,” Chung said.

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.