Science + Technology

UCLA nonprofit aims to advance campus discoveries

Westwood Technology Transfer will focus on better optimizing the discoveries and inventions developed through campus research

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The business of discovery and innovation at UCLA is getting an injection of business know-how to help advance research from campus labs to practical uses.

At a recent gathering of faculty, researchers and other distinguished guests, Chancellor Gene Block announced the creation of a new not-for-profit company, Westwood Technology Transfer (WTT), that will focus on better protecting and optimizing the discoveries and inventions developed through campus research that attracts about $1 billion in funding each year.

Ranked fifth on the Forbes 2014 list of the most entrepreneurial universities and ninth among all universities globally for technology, engineering and research excellence, according to the 2014-15 Times Higher Education World Rankings, UCLA is the source of more than 100 active startup companies based on student- and faculty-led discoveries, as well as nearly 700 active patents. Three biopharmaceutical companies rooted in discoveries made at UCLA — Kite Pharma, Aragon and Seragon — were recently valued at more than $1 billion each.

Dr. James Economou, vice chancellor for research at UCLA, said WTT and its experienced board of directors will further support the university’s interests in advancing and commercializing promising research in line with the campus’s stated mission of research, education and service.

“Our work is not done when our scientists have completed a key experiment or have published in an academic journal,” Economou said. “Our work is done only when we have translated our discoveries into practical benefit for society.”

Unprecedented within the University of California system, WTT will be led by a 10-person board composed of distinguished UCLA faculty and executives from a range of industries, including biopharmaceuticals, engineering and technology, finance, private equity and venture capital. The board will guide the ongoing work of the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research (OIP-ISR) in making strategic investments, identifying promising research and licensing partnerships, and refining select technologies that emerge from research efforts campuswide.

Brendan Rauw, the company’s new president and chief executive officer, said generating royalties for the university and inventors is only one byproduct of the company’s work.

“We have students and faculty at UCLA making new discoveries every day that address challenges we face as a society — economic, environmental and societal,” said Rauw, who has directed entrepreneurship on campus since 2012. “Our hope is that, with the benefit of the experience and expertise of the board and new oversight by the university community, we can accelerate the translation of these early-stage ideas for the benefit of all.”

UCLA’s effort is modeled after successful not-for-profit companies that have been set up and are guiding technology transfer at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Arizona State University. UC regents approved UCLA’s approach last year.

William Ouchi, the Distinguished Professor in Corporate Renewal at the UCLA Anderson School of Management who directed development of WTT, said aligning OIP-ISR efforts with an experienced, independent board is a practical need given the high stakes associated with commercialization, in which patenting fees for a single technology or drug can range from $50,000 to $1 million.

“No university can afford to patent all of its interesting inventions, not even all of those inventions that have scientific merit and that meet the university’s rigorous tests of scientific discipline,” Ouchi said. “WTT will rely on its flow of funds from past inventions to pay all of its patenting expenses, and while that flow is substantial, it is not infinite. A board made up primarily of university ‘outsiders’ can make these decisions to invest in one invention over another without being exposed to the normal pressures of campus politics, which will be another advantage of WTT.”

Although the board has independent decision-making authority, its work and annual budget will be reviewed by the chancellor and an oversight committee, which includes faculty members and students. In addition, consistent with university policy to protect research independence and academic freedom, board members receive no compensation and are required to file paperwork declaring their financial interests.

UCLA captured $973 million in competitively awarded research grants and contracts in 2013-14, maintaining a long-held position among the nation’s top research powerhouses. It earned nearly $40 million in royalties and licensing revenues during the same period — money that benefits both the campus and the inventors themselves.

Rauw said WTT will complement the rich ecosystem of entrepreneurial business advisory boards, incubators and accelerators operating on campus, including the California NanoSystems Institute, the Institute for Technology Advancement at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Accelerator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“UCLA has established a strong platform for future success,” Rauw said. “This initiative is to ensure we build on our achievements to date to realize the full potential on campus. It’s our goal to reenvision the role of the research university in translational research and to transform what can be achieved for the benefit of society.”

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