University of Miami venture nurtures research, spins off 20 infant technology efforts
By Marilyn Bowden
UMInnovation, a multifaceted University of Miami initiative that nurtures research and fosters collaboration with industry, has spun off about 20 infant companies, and supporters hope it will become the link to make South Florida a recognized life sciences and technology hub.
"The mission of the UM is fourfold: to provide clinical care, share knowledge with others, partner with the community and generate new knowledge," said Bart Chernow, vice provost of technology advancement and vice president of special programs at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who says he was hired by UM President Donna Shalala three years ago to help with technology advancement.
"The greater good is best achieved by translating discoveries made by our researchers into commercial use — products and services that help people and the human condition," he said.
To achieve this, Dr. Chernow says, he created UMInnovation, which has eight components.
"First is a Patent & Copyright Committee," he said. "When inventors make discoveries, they're obliged to disclose them to the university, and university has the right to take title to those discoveries and protect the intellectual property.
"They can make one of four decisions: to take title; to release it and let the inventor manage it; to watch it for a year and see whether or not the inventor can demonstrate enablement of the idea, or to consult our Corporate Advisory Council or Internal Scientific Advisory Group" — UMInnovation's second and third components.
Fourth is the Office of Technology Transfer, which helps determine the commercialization potential and patentability of a discovery.
The Annual Technology Showcase, the fifth component, showcases discoveries to potential investors. A new Life Science & Technology Park is to house both existing and spinoff companies; the Wallace H. Coulter Center for Translational Research helps with funding discoveries with high commercialization potential. The final component is a Conflict of Interest Committee.
"On behalf of the citizens of South Florida, this is a tremendous advance," Dr. Chernow said. "To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing like it in the US. We're helping to create an opportunity to help people who are suffering, and hopefully, if we outlicense a discovery we will get royalties that will be used to support our charitable missions."
At any point in time, he said, UMInnovation has about 125 technologies available for licensing or acquisition. About 20 spinoff companies have been created, most still in very early stages of development.
"So in these first three years we've accomplished a great deal," Dr. Chernow said. "But I think the value will start to be seen in years four to five as technologies mature."
His hope, he said, is to make South Florida a recognized technology center.
"Commercialization of the majority of university-generated technologies has been largely concentrated in three area of the nation: New England, the San Francisco region and the San Diego region," he said. "That triangle of commercialization has bothered me since I arrived here in Miami. I want it to be a rectangle.
"Part of what I am trying to do is take wonderful technological discoveries by UM's faculty and advance that technology through innovation, so that UM and the State of Florida can become recognized as the fourth corner of the rectangle."
Life Sciences & Technology is a target industry of the Beacon Council, the county's economic development arm.
"Clearly we like the business plan of the Life Science &Technology Park that UM is proposing," said Beacon Council President and CEO Frank Nero. "Ultimately, besides direct jobs, these spinoffs will grow and create a manufacturing component that hopefully will take place here in South Florida. That could be a real game changer.
"I think UM has the right team in place. The key to that they are looking not just at pure research but ultimately its potential for commercialization. That provides a better turnaround for return on investment and a successful economic impact for the community."
It could be particularly important, he said, if the Legislature passes a proposal by Gov. Charlie Crist to reinvigorate and refinance the state's Innovation Fund, which was primarily used during the Jeb Bush Administration to attract Life Sciences to Florida.
"Gov. Crist has proposed refunding it to the tune of about $100 million," Mr. Nero said. "Hopefully the Legislature will agree even in these tight budget times."
Groundwork is underway at the site of UM's Life Science &Technology Park, near Jackson Memorial Hospital and UM's Miller School of Medicine campus, said Marcelo Radice, executive director of Inter-American Initiatives at the medical school, who is overseeing the project.
Construction on the first phase, a research and development building of about 220,000 square feet, will begin later this year, he said, with completion targeted in summer 2011. In total, site plans call for a complex of more than 1 million square feet.