University Mindshare Goes Green

University projects involving greentech are capturing a lot more mindshare of students and professors these days.

At the UC Berkeley Engineering School, a big shift has happened over the past three years. In 2005 there were few professors focused on the topic of energy. Today roughly 50 percent of the faculty say they’re working on it. That’s a lot of talented people turning their eyes toward solving energy problems.

And the results are encouraging. Last year UC Berkeley licensed technology to 30 companies and half of that total were in the cleantech area, according to Michael Cohen, Director of the Office of Technology Licensing at Berkeley. Also last year, Cohen says, 11 of 18 startups based on UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Labs innovations concerned greentech.

Still, overall the challenge of bringing new innovations out of the lab and into the commercial world is daunting. Lots of technologies don’t make it across the so-called Valley of Death.

Death Valley, California

At a panel at AlwaysOn’s Venture Summit this past December, people in licensing offices discussed what universities need to better support innovation. Most said they’d like to see the IP licensing process get less onerous. They’d also appreciate efforts to nurture early-stage startups working on ideas that usually take several years to mature into commercial applications.

In terms of technology licensing and IP, Stanford has had a great run over the years, with some 7,000 inventions, according to Kathy Ku, director of the Stanford Office of Technology Licensing. And the university still issues about 100 licenses a year. But Ku said she “would like for more investors to focus on early stage” and help startups cross the “valley of death.”

Cohen used four M’s to define the categories of commercialization of innovations from university labs. They are: morphed, mined, milked and marketed. Morphed technologies are organically grown from research. Mined technologies are opportunistically brought out by entrepreneurs who scour the campus. Milked are systematically grown out of research by corporate collaborators. And marketed technologies are driven methodically to industry by the campus.

He gave some examples from UC Berkeley. Morphed: Seeo, CaliSolar, TaoIt and MicroClimates. Mined: Aurora Biofuels and Abdura Tech. Milked: Ecoprene and Analog Devices. Marketed: World Wide Energy, Luminus Devices, Solexel and Solexant.

Looking ahead, there’s no doubt university research institutions will contribute significantly to the shift to greentech. But overcoming the impediments is still as difficult as ever. –Lee Bruno

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