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Q&A: University of Cincinnati's Dorothy Air on academia's role in business

Dorothy H. Air, associate vp for entrepreneurial affairs at the U. of Cincinnati. Photos Ben French
Dorothy H. Air, associate vp for entrepreneurial affairs at the U. of Cincinnati. Photos Ben French
How have things evolved in the area of commercialization or research at universities?

We have moved from a typical technology transfer model of licensing technology to interested companies, to looking at the total opportunities that technology presents to us. We're looking at that opportunity to expand through partnerships, looking at the best path to commercialization, and creating startups. It's a part a much broader way at looking at tech transfer, the outcomes we are trying to produce and best way to go about getting there.

Why has that changed occurred?

When it comes to economic vitality in a region, universities are looked at as a very important part of the ecosystem. Regions that have strong research institutions will have the most vibrant economies. We are viewed as part of that ecosystem, and are constantly asking "how do we fit into the bigger picture of our region?" Communities are looking more and more at what universities can do to help bolster our economy.

What programs are in place to help faculty commercialize research at UC?

Ten years ago the Office of Entrepreneurial Affairs started to move in that direction. We have learning opportunities related to startup company opportunities and education programs about commercializing a technology. We have run some training programs like Cincinnati Creates Companies that steered our faculty and staff in creating a new company. We don't have that program anymore, but what we are trying to do at the Office of Entrepreneurial Affairs and Technology Commercialization is to be a one-stop shop. Faculty can come directly to our office ,and we connect them with the right resources in the community. As a public university, all the technology that gets developed by faculty belongs to the university. Tech transfer functions are critical, and all of the licensing activity has to go through our office. That's when you get faculty coming to you with their ideas. If they have a promising technology, we say it's times to get it protected in some way and then take a look at the opportunities for it.

Are there certain types of research you're focusing on?

We will work with anyone from any part of the university, but where we see the most promising opportunity in terms of volume of activity is from the Medical Center and the College of Engineering. I also see DAAP (School of Design) starting to get more engaged. The College of Medicine and the College of Engineering is where we see more research developing into intellectual property. We work across colleges and partner with industry groups as well.

What kind of effect has your research and commercialization collaboration (known as the Master Agreement) with Procter & Gamble had on UC's research?

The Master Agreement was actually put in place maybe eight years ago. It started out just being a master agreement between our two institutions but it has now served as a model for P&G working with other institutions in Ohio. It's a statement of the importance of industry and research centers working together. It's important enough to us that we want to make it official and streamline how we work, and spend more time on product outcomes instead of red tape.

How involved is the university in working with the business community?

We are out there working with many industries in our region. We have faculty being tapped for expertise and advising. We have some unique capabilities that a startup would be interested in such as drug discovery capabilities. So they can access those capabilities (through licensing). We have been at the table recruiting companies to our region. When the business community or Chamber is trying to attract new companies, those companies want to know about the workforce available. We can offer unique training programs for them. Technology development opportunities are also important for companies looking to move here.

How does the university make money from commercialization?

It's nice when a technology makes a lot of money, but a lot of our research is in early stage. And when it comes to medical technology, the first aim is to get the technology into society to improve healthcare and contribute to society. What happens when a technology is created at the university is that it is licensed to a company or startup and a percentage of the money from that license goes back to the university. The university shares in the royalties as well as the inventor.

What are some recent commercialization success stories from the University?

We have a number of startups in the early stages based on technology developed at UC. OsteoDynamics is developing a new piece of equipment for measuring bone density, testing who's going to get a fracture and who isn't. This is new piece of equipment that could become the new gold standard in testing. In the area of cancer, Estrocept tests who is going to respond to what kind of breast cancer treatments. Some types of breast cancer respond better to certain types of treatment.

Do you have any other thoughts to add?

Universities have really been the place where many new products and process have been spawned and entirely new industries created. Automated manufacturing, food canning, MRI machines. I think the public is starting to see that this is where there is a whole lot of opportunity to tap into, and are asking how do we work together to capitalize on those opportunities?

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