The Innovators

From research in university labs, companies create the products that fuel economic development. (Illustration by Gavin Potenza)

November 4, 2009

Young companies benefit from OSU research

By Nick Houtman

In Brief

The issue

Research can create the basis for new products and services, but starting a new business brings risk. OSU scientists and engineers are working with established companies and creating new ones to manage risk and generate jobs.

OSU Leadership

Four companies signed license agreements with OSU in 2008-09. They are among at least 22 startup and spinoff companies that, since 2004, are leveraging OSU research for new products in fields from solar energy and biotechnology to software and environmental sensing.

 

The story of Oregon State University's success in commercializing research can be told partly by the numbers:

  • One national Deals of Distinction Award to a partnership between OSU, Hewlett-Packard and Xtreme Energetics for the application of transparent transistors to solar power

  • Four new licenses signed by businesses to use OSU technologies in 2009

  • 22 startup and spinoff companies leveraging OSU technologies since 2004

  • Over $1 million in seed money raised by OSU's Venture Capital Development Fund to support commercialization of university research

These numbers mean jobs and development for Oregon. However, for a fledgling company, continued success takes research, the right personnel and access to capital. According to one venture capital manager, who specializes in commercializing academic research, it all comes down to risk.

Research-based inventions may get the ball rolling, but "risk is the core issue," Pat Murphy told an OSU audience last spring. The chief operating officer of The University Funds LLC explained that new businesses face risk at every stage: finding investors, creating an effective organization, entering the market. By training faculty and students to work with entrepreneurs and to understand market forces, he added, universities can increase the likelihood of business success. OSU is one of The University Fund's 14 partner institutions that include universities in Canada and the United States.

So it is a cause for celebration when a business deal or a company wins an award, demonstrating that, in the eyes of judges, it is a good bet. This fall, a licensing agreement by HP, OSU and a California startup, Xtreme Energetics, received a Deal of Distinction Award from the Licensing Executives Society at its annual meeting in San Francisco. "This deal demonstrates the versatility that transparent transistors hold to solve meaningful problems in applications ranging from flat-panel OLED and LCD displays to green energy solutions," Business Wire reported. "Xtreme Energetics is now further developing the technology in its own labs and funding research at OSU."

Smart Technology

That announcement followed good news from Bend. Precision Plant Systems, a spinoff that signed a license with OSU in 2008, won a first-place award at the Bend Venture Conference. The company is developing an integrated crop management system called "cropIQ." That system includes intelligent field tools and software for agricultural process control, says company CEO Larry Plotkin, helping farmers maximize quality, yield and profits.

The company's patent-pending, hand-held "Ping Meter," developed by emeritus horticulture professor Les Fuchigami, OSU engineering professor Tom Plant and alumnus Ping Hai Ding, is an important part of "cropIQ." From data collected by observation, the Ping Meter (plant nutrient and water status) and other instruments, the system produces detailed maps of field and crop conditions across a field, orchard or vineyard.

"A lot of people are interested (in using technology in the vineyard), but it comes down to cost," says Patty Skinkis, OSU Extension viticulture specialist with the Department of Horticulture, who works with Oregon's wine grape industry. Last summer, Plotkin arranged to take measurements within Skinkis' field trials to determine how this technology may work for growers. Data were collected at two Oregon vineyards: Stoller in Dayton and Olsen Family Vineyards in Monmouth. Growers are moving toward the use of new technologies, Skinkis says, to measure water, nutrients and chlorophyll and to keep better vineyard records.

Precision Plant Systems has also received support through OSU's University Venture Development Fund.

Empowering Students

While farmers must respond to competition in their industries, a different kind of need led to the creation of another OSU technology licensee, Accessible Information Management LLC. The company markets a Web-based program that manages services to college students with disabilities. In its drive to cut costs and become more efficient, OSU uses the system to serve the more than 600 students on campus who need assistance taking notes, reading textbooks, taking tests and overcoming learning challenges.

In the past, serving those needs meant that staff had to field phone calls, contact service providers and micromanage daily activities. It all required meticulous recordkeeping.

Tracy Bentley-Townlin, director of OSU's Disability Access Services (DAS), wanted a better approach. "We got into this business to work with students, not to manage paperwork," she says. In 2002, she hired an undergraduate in computer science, Haris Gunadi, to create an online system.

Gunadi went on to get his master's at OSU and today works as a program manager for DAS. OSU students use his Web-based system to post requests and confirm arrangements 24/7. "For us, it's normal to have thousands of requests from students every term," he adds. "Now the students can manage everything online themselves."

As CEO for Accessible Information Management, Gunadi markets a standardized version of the software to other universities. The program is in use at Western and Southern Oregon universities, Linn-Benton Community College and George Fox. Discussions are under way with the Oregon University System office, and Gunadi has also introduced it to universities in California and Texas.

Thin Films and Biotechnology

Two other companies that have spun research into business enterprises signed licenses with OSU this past year. A Corvallis company, Inpria Inc., grew from work by OSU chemist Douglas Keszler and engineer John Wager. The company specializes in applying thin-films (atoms thick) to electronic displays. "OSU has been a fantastic partner for us," says CEO Andrew Grenville.

Bolstered by investments from the University Venture Development Fund and ONAMI (Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute), Grenville is developing a multi-year partnership with a top-tier display manufacturer. Inpria has also received a $100,000 federal Small Business Innovative Research grant for applying semiconductor technologies to lithography.

In 2006, Life Microsystems of Corvallis grew out of an interest in translating scientific studies at OSU into commercial products. One of the first, a highly pure form of chlorophyll, was the result of research by two OSU scientists, Carole Jubert and George Bailey. John Mata (research associate professor in the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine) and Scott Gustafson (veterinary surgeon and former OSU faculty member) created the company to develop techniques for making high-quality chemicals for dietary supplements and research.

Establishing a business was a natural step for Gustafson, who is the company's CEO. "John and I have worked together for years doing things for other people," says Gustafson. "We got pretty good at it, and we decided that we could do this for ourselves too. So we took the plunge."

Life Microsystems operates a laboratory through ONAMI at the HP campus in Corvallis and works with other Northwest biotechnology companies including Omnigen Research in Corvallis; Metagenics in Gig Harbor, Washington; Gene Tools in Philomath; and Oregon Freeze Dry in Albany. The company also has a contract to isolate anthocyanins (potent antioxidants) for researchers at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

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