May 1, 2012

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Launch Pad

The Secret Formula for University Tech Commercialization

Spencer Sutherland

May 1, 2012

After more than a century of preparing students for jobs, the University of Utah is now gaining a national reputation for preparing jobs for students. For the second straight year, the U has ranked No. 1 in the country in creating new startup companies. This designation places the U ahead of technology powerhouses MIT, Columbia, Cal Tech and Johns Hopkins.

From 2009 to 2010, 18 new companies resulted from university research projects. Since 1970, when the school launched its first startup company, the university has helped launch more than 200 businesses—with more than 125 of them formed in the past six years. In 2009 alone, these companies indirectly or directly accounted for 15,767 jobs, $754.5 million in personal income and $76.6 million in tax revenue.

Making the Most of Its Students
What puts the U ahead of other research schools is “a very subtle distinction,” says Jack Brittain, vice president of technology venture development for the school. “Most universities approach commercialization as something they do to the university,” Brittain explains. “Our approach to commercialization is something that we do with the university.”

That means that rather than finding an outside venture capitalist to control the new technologies, the school’s commercialization department works to integrate all of its activities into the core mission of the university.

There are also more tangible differences, such has how the university uses its money and its students. In 2010, the U spent $450 million on research, compared to the $1.4 billion spent by MIT.

“We’re distinctive in having a very large number of students involved,” Brittain says of the 2,000 students working on research projects. “That enriches the educational environment and also provides us with a remendous amount of energy and intellect that goes into all aspects of commercialization, whether it is in our own inventions or students’ inventions.”

The university also uses students to help compensate for limited personnel resources. MBA students, for example, are enlisted to perform market research for new products, and law students work on intellectual property issues.

“The interesting thing about engaging students in what we do is that it makes every one of our full-time professionals a teacher. The more they teach, the more they learn as they respond to students’ questions. It’s a really important part of continuous improvement on the operations side,” says Brittain.

The school’s continued commercial successes have also become an important recruiting tool for both faculty and students.

“Ultimately it’s about getting your ideas out and making a difference in the world,” he says. “Whether you want to create a better gaming experience, you think that surgical procedures can be improved or you have energy efficiency ideas, you can put purpose to that passion.”

Taking Technology to Market
Joey Wilson, the founder and CEO of startup Xandem, was one of the students who was drawn to the U because of its success in creating businesses. “My intention for getting an engineering Ph.D. was to start a company, not to go into academia,” he says.

As a post-graduate student, he was paired up with assistant professor Neal Patwari. “When I saw the technology Neal was working on, I immediately said, ‘We need to start a company,’” Wilson recalls. “His response was, ‘Great. Let’s do it.’”

The technology is what his company now calls “synergistic sensing,” where radio waves are used to see through opaque obstructions, like walls. The company’s first product is a next-generation motion detector called Xandem TMD.

“There are a lot of infrared motion detectors out there, but there are a lot of problems with the existing technology,” Wilson explains. “First and foremost, [those detectors] are very limited in what they can see and are very prone to false alarms.”

Because Xandem’s system surrounds an area with inexpensive radio transceivers that send and receive signals, large spaces can be more fully protected. While this specific product is intended for warehouses and commercial properties, Wilson says it offers only a glimpse of the technology’s full capability.

“I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this technology can save people’s lives,” Wilson says. Beyond protecting property, Xandem is working toward solution that will also keep people safe.

Because the transceivers can track motion through walls, Wilson envisions the technology being used by law enforcement before entering a hostage situation or as a safety monitor for the elderly. Rather than producing photographic or video images, the technology simply monitors movement. This allows individuals to maintain their privacy while being monitored.

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