Out of the Classroom, into the Market: The Growing Business of Tech Transfer


When you were a kid and you imagined your dream home, what kinds of innovations did you see there? Was there a robot that would go from room to room when you weren’t home to make sure no one touched your stuff? How about a car that would pay for its own fuel?  

Innovations like these are being brought to you today by Pennsylvania’s universities and technology centers, arriving on store shelves through Technology Transfer–a process by which classroom innovations become technology companies.

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University has been a leader in this field for years, with its industry-leading robotics institute having created more than 20 new startup companies since 2006. The university has become something of a leader in tech transfer, turning class projects into profitable companies in just a few short years.

WorkHorse Technologies started just this way. In 2002, a team of CMU roboticists began to rent out their projects to surveyors interested in land mapping technology that wouldn’t have to stop for bathroom breaks. The company now works on projects all over the country, mapping underground mines and tunnels where humans won’t dare to tread.

With a streamlined process of commercialization in place, CMU is paving the way for new projects to hit the open market. Right now, researchers are working on a home security robot to guard your home while you’re away, taking room-to-room images you can access over the Internet.

CMU also has a letter of intent from the Pittsburgh Penguins to develop YinzCam, a new form of sports replay system that will allow give fans access to cameras around Mellon Arena from any Wi-Fi device. Imagine being able to check bathroom lines and concession lines from your seat, watch replays right after they happen and even check the traffic in the parking lot from your phone.

“Firstly, we have to attribute most of the success to the quality of inventors and faculty we have here,” says Robert Conway, senior manager of business development. “But I think having someone focused on robotics, our office working to create opportunities out of strictly the robotics industry can account for a lot of startups.”

In southeast Pennsylvania, a consortium of private investment firms and universities are working with the U.S. Navy to develop the energy deployment systems of the future. This program aims to turn the Navy Yard in Philadelphia into a hub of energy efficient design.

Working with the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, The University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University received $1.2 million to establish the Energy Commercialization Institute. This would do for energy projects what the robotics institute does for CMU: provide a focused, streamlined process from the classroom to the showroom.
Another $700,000 recently went to Penn State University, which opened up a master’s program in systems engineering as well as began research on some exciting new technologies.

One of the innovations PSU’s engineering team is working on is a deployment system to transmit energy from your hybrid car battery into the power grid. This would allow you to drive home from work and plug in your car while it is at top performance, draining some of the excess energy into the power grid to be sold back to the power company, saving homeowners on their next power bill.

Another would allow power companies to remotely control your appliances to operate only during peak demand and store the energy for periods of low demand, preventing blackouts and other overload problems.

These power distribution and management technologies are a major focus of the Navy Yard Keystone Innovation Zone, created through a 2005 partnership between the PIDC, Ben Franklin, the City of Philadelphia, the U.S. Navy and Penn State. The Keystone Innovation Zone–or KIZ–will allow companies located there to get tax breaks and other assistance to bring university-developed technology to market.

In addition, the $650 million energy bill that Gov. Ed Rendell signed last July provides $40 million for the Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority to distribute among its four state offices to support tech start-ups developing energy efficiency technologies.

Another university hoping to take advantage of stimulus funding through a tech transfer program is Temple, which has experience both with creating start-ups and licensing technology discoveries. In the past year, the school’s tech transfer office has spun out three new companies, from a biotech footwear company to assist people with diabetic foot ulcers to a cockroach spray that uses the insect’s natural pheromones against it. Currently, the office is working closely with university scientists to develop a product to reduce the viscosity of crude oil.

Temple is also interested in conducting field-testing for a new technology that could prevent the formation of acidic water in coalmines and hopes it can get the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to foot the bill. The substance, developed by chemistry professor Daniel Strongin, would protect miners by coating rocks to prevent them from forming hydrochloric acid. If approved, the University hopes to create a strong license or business model from the innovation.

“There are certain projects that are in line with the stimulus money. In all, I think Temple submitted over 80 grants,” says Steve Nappi, Director of Technology Transfer for Temple University. “Stimulus money may be able to further advance our technologies at value and increase our chances of finding a commercial partner.”

John Steele is a freelance writer andblogger in Philadelphia. He enjoys music snobbery, trash television andlaughing at hipsters. Send feedback here.

To receive Keystone Edge free every week, click here.


Dr. Kamel Khalili at the Labs in Temple University (Courtesy of Temple University)

Steven Nappi (Jeff Fusco)

Region: Southwest

Features, Higher Ed, Pittsburgh