Innovation
12:14 pm
Tue May 29, 2012

Orphan Inventions Get New Life

When it comes to inventing things, Connecticut still punches way above its weight. But sometimes the good ideas dreamed up here end up languishing on a shelf instead of making a difference in people’s lives. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports on a new project that aims to find a home for orphan technologies.

When you think about scientific research in Connecticut, you might picture a lab at UConn or Yale. But important as those institutions are, in terms of research dollars, they’re only a small part of the story.  Private industry actually spends more than ten times as much on research and development as do academic institutions.

“Oh, I think we’re blessed. We have been the home of corporate research for a long, long time.”

That’s Bruce Carlson. He’s one of the state’s foremost experts on technology transfer. That’s the process by which new research gets brought out into the commercial world and turned into things we all buy and use. Carlson set up the entire tech transfer operation at UConn, and now he’s aiming to do something similar for Connecticut’s big private corporations with his new organization called the IP Factory.

“The IP Factory is designed to take those technologies that are sitting on the shelves of Connecticut’s corporations, and ultimately creating new technology-based companies.”

And the state has plenty of IP or intellectual property. According to the National Science Foundation, at least before the recession, Connecticut companies spent more than nine billion dollars on R&D annually, ranking Connecticut 10th in the nation in terms of private R&D spending. And the state ranks 18th for the number patents issued here. Carlson says there’s lots of reason why some of those patents don’t end up getting used.

“Oftentimes the technology that they are working with may have applications in other fields. So that somebody might be in advanced manufacturing, but have a technology that has application in the healthcare field. Well, they’re not ever going to be in the healthcare field.”

So the project goes nowhere. Or it could be that the research was championed by a particular employee, who leaves the company and the project becomes an orphan. Brian Romansky is director of new business opportunities at Pitney Bowes in Stamford.

“For a long period of time, Pitney, like a lot of other large companies, was pretty aggressive at filing patents. You can’t always predict what’s going to be relevant to the market right away, so a lot of times you’ll file things that seem relevant at the time but don’t make it to commercialization.”

Pitney is one of the companies that’s become involved in the early pilot projects at Bruce Carlson’s IP Factory, letting them have a look at some of its orphan patents for development. Romansky says he’s intrigued, but not yet perhaps convinced by the model.

“What’s different with the IP factory is the sort of proactive notion of saying, here’s the IP, here’s the patent – can you make something out of it?  It’s a difficult innovation challenge, because you’re basically starting with the answer. You’re saying here’s the technology, what problem does this solve?”

For instance Pitney has developed a specialized ink. Under normal light the ink shows up black, but under fluorescent light it looks red. What could that possibly be used for? The people taking on that innovation challenge for the IP Factory are student teams from UConn, under the direction of Christopher Levesque at the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“One of the goals is ultimately to try to create spin-out companies that would take the technology birthed by a larger company, that could even cluster around various other companies and serve as a supplier or a customer to the company that developed the underlying technology.”

The students research the technology, brainstorm possible uses, and talk to potential customers, competitors and industry experts as they develop a commercialization plan. In the case of the Pitney Bowes ink, they’re working on the premise that it could be used as a security device for doctors writing prescriptions. Pitney gets access to that market research and later potentially licensing fees or an ownership stake if an entrepreneur decides to form a company around the patents. Elizabeth Matulle worked on one of the teams.

“I wasn’t just viewed as a student or an intern or something like that, they really were valuing our opinions. The research that we did affected real business decisions.”

Matulle is due to graduate this summer with a Masters in Economics. She says her experience with the IP Factory may even change the trajectory of her career.

“If I wanted to get into entrepreneurship myself, before I wouldn’t even have known where to start, and now I certainly do.”

That should be music to the ears of Bruce Carlson, the IP Factory’s founder. He says his goal is to create as many new technology companies and technology entrepreneurs as he can. And he says he also hopes to change people’s ideas about how large and small companies can work together.

“People have always thought about, well there’s start-ups and there’s, you know, United Technologies and that there’s not a lot of relationship between the two. Our secret sauce in Connecticut is going to be there really is a nice bridge that can be built where they’re all working together.”

In a world where corporate research and development budgets are now declining and big companies are looking elsewhere for risk-taking innovators, it may also be a good idea to take a look and see what’s on the corporate shelf that could help out.

For WNPR, I’m Harriet Jones.