Universities Work to Push Cleantech Discoveries Out of the Lab, Into the Market

Universities Work to Push Cleantech Discoveries Out of the Lab, Into the Market

There has always been a gap between university lab breakthroughs and marketplace reality. But whereas that gap has largely been closed in the biological sciences by technology transfer programs, scientists researching the chemical and physical sciences related to cleantech still struggle to commercialize their discoveries.

Slowly, though, change is afoot.

In 1980, Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act in the hopes of funneling federal research funding into projects with commercial potential. As part of that, the government set about improving technology transfer departments at universities throughout the country. The act also gave universities the intellectual property rights for their academic breakthroughs, creating a new way for institutions to make money from their research.

While technology transfer departments were strengthened by the legislation, there remain few universities that can show a great return on their research investments. Those who have been able to commercialize their work have done so primarily in the life sciences realm.

In fiscal year 2006, for example, the University of California’s roughly $3 billion in public funding yielded $110 million from licensing its patents to industry. The top five patents it licensed that year — responsible for 46 percent of the revenue — were life sciences patents.

Cleantech Begins to Bridge the Gap

In the last few years, some universities have begun working hard to create similar success for research related to cleantech industries.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Michigan, Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley all now have strong programs in place to help scientists start thinking earlier about the applications their research may have — and what to do to ensure that it makes it out of the lab and into the real world.

“While a lot of the dot-com startups were started by students out of their dorm rooms or basements, in the cleantech world you need a lot more than a desktop and a good Internet-based idea,” says Shawn Lesser, president and founder of Atlanta-based venture fund Sustainable World Capital.

It’s the same conundrum venture capitalists and other investors face when looking at cleantech.

While most of the big-name venture capitalists today cut their teeth and made their first millions on IT investments that required little upfront capital, the majority of cleantech investments require lab space, teams of scientists and time — all things that equate to larger capital investments and longer-term returns on those investments.

Increasingly, private companies are stepping up to help fund more cleantech research in the university sphere. And as more private capital and venture funders get interested in the research happening at universities, scientists are beginning to get a bit more savvy about how their research might translate into commercialization.

Lesser recently ranked the top 10 universities in the U.S. for cleantech, evaluating universities on how well they manage the transfer of technology from the lab to the market. Universities have started everything from cleantech incubators and student-led cleantech venture funds (University of Michigan) to high-profile cleantech prizes (MIT) to cleantech-focused research institutes (Stanford).

Good Science Needs Good Business

These institutions and others are benefiting more now than they ever have from private investment in cleantech research. Oil giant BP, for instance, has sponsored research at UC Berkeley, Conoco Phillips is funding programs at the University of Texas, Austin and IBM has helped to create a smart planet-focused curriculum at Columbia University.

But these experiences have taught researchers that good science is not enough. What every great cleantech discovery needs is a business team that can help conduct market research, evaluate potential research applications and put together a business model and plan.

To that end, UC Berkeley launched its Cleantech-to-Market (C2M) program in 2008, pairing students from the business school — as well as a handful of students from law and engineering programs — with scientists conducting cleantech-related research. The idea, at least initially, was to give business students a real-life case study to work on. But during presentations last week of work done through the program, scientists said they were surprised at how the business students had improved their ideas.

“It was phenomenal,” Cyrus Wadia, co-director of the C2M program, said during the C2M presentations. “They absorbed more information than I ever expected. Then they took my ideas and put a creative spin on them, and went in a direction I hadn’t even thought of.”

Wadia, who earned a PhD in UC Berkeley’s Energy Resources Group, has been researching ways to develop photovoltaic solar cells from earth-abundant materials to make solar energy affordable and accessible worldwide. The “nanomaterials” that Wadia has created in his lab could be used to manufacture flexible, affordable and efficient thin-film solar.

Currently working at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy while on a one-year leave from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Wadia worked with a team of five students to develop a market strategy and sales pitch around his research. The goal was to position the thin-film solar technology for the off-grid market in rural areas of developing countries.

In addition to pairing students with scientists, the C2M program gives students access to top-flight venture capitalists and intellectual property lawyers as advisors. In some cases the program not only helped the scientists gain valuable experience, it also helped them find the industry they want to work in.

“This class has given me access to clean energy. It helped me make the transitions MBAs are always trying to make,” said MBA candidate Carlo Woods, who used to work in finance and accounting. “My internship this summer is with a solar firm.”

Although started as a pilot project, the C2M program is now a fully credited class offered through the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. According to the program’s co-directors, they received 120 applications for 42 seats this semester and are getting constant requests to grow the program. It remains uncertain, however, whether they will be able to do so, given the dire state of California’s finances and the university’s budget woes.