An Oklahoma State University program that invests and assists with technology commercialization has returned to the university $4.50 for every $1 invested, according to the Technology Development Center, which launched the program a decade ago. The gap fund has given a $2.37 million financial boost to more than 100 OSU technology developments with more than two dozen becoming businesses.
Business startups face almost insurmountable obstacles to success. Fortune.com reported last year that 90 percent of new ventures fail. The top two reasons, according to Fortune, are the lack of a market and a scarcity of financing. It takes a lot of money to take an invention from research and development (which should include market research) to commercial launch, even at a large research university. But the Technology Business Development Program (TBDP) provides support to researchers to fill a financing gap between the laboratory and a technology’s commercial release.
“Gap funding refers to financial support for technology that’s too applied to receive basic research funding (such as grants from the National Science Foundation or other government funders), but it’s too basic to obtain funding from industry,” said Steve Price, Technology Development Center director. “Every project starting off as basic research that goes into commercialization reaches this financial no-man’s-land.”
The TDC, an office within the OSU Research Foundation, is responsible for protecting the university’s intellectual property through the licensing and patenting of OSU-developed technologies.
The 4.5-to-1 return on investment was based on Price’s survey of TBDP-funded researchers. He has found that the $2.37 million investment has resulted in $10.87 million returned to OSU in the form of additional financing that researchers received as a direct result of gap funding.
“That return on investment shows the program works,” Price said.
An example of a successful OSU startup that relied on gap funding is Roll-2-Roll Technologies, which manufactures optical sensors and lateral guides used in making consumer products from rolled materials. Founded in 2013 based on technology developed by mechanical engineering professor Prabhakar Pagilla, the sensors and guides were recognized as potential products that would be unique to manufacturing using rolled paper, plastic, metal and fabric. Industry feedback showed the need for the technology.
Pagilla received a National Science Foundation grant to develop the concept for a fiber optic sensor and software to control lateral guides. Pagilla and his team of graduate students, including Aravind Seshadri, now CEO of Roll-2-Roll, launched their business based on that concept but needed more funding to build a prototype. That’s where TDC gap funding entered the picture.
“With NSF money we proved that the concept of the sensor worked, but then we needed funding for a prototype (of the sensor and lateral guide system) to show people in the industry,” said Seshadri. “The gap funding was critical for us to develop a prototype to demonstrate that indeed this could be commercialized and there was a market.”
Seshadri and his team worked countless hours to improve the technology and attract private financing to move the startup and its technologies to commercial viability. The company now has a full product line and is making sales.
As it did with Roll-2-Roll, the Technology Development Center uses TBDP funds to assess the potential of inventions, help launch businesses and license and patent technologies. Licenses are held by OSU, which is paid licensing royalties. In this case, the technology is licensed to Roll-to-Roll Technologies, which shares any profit among the partners and the university.
In 10 years, the gap funding program has received more than 300 proposals and has funded 110. Price said that support has resulted in 25 startups, 88 issued patents, and 30 intellectual property licenses that return revenue to OSU.
“Promising technologies arising from university research can languish for lack of even a modest amount of support,” Price said. “The TBDP helps inventors through this no-man’s-land.”