President McRobbie

University research can spur business start-ups

Note: This guest column was submitted by Michael A. McRobbie, president, Indiana University. It appeared in The Indianapolis Star on June 26, 2015.

A recent article in The Star highlighted Indiana's low ranking among U.S. states in support for business start-ups. Indeed, at a high-level the picture is not pretty:

Indiana ranked 47th in the country in the number of new businesses created per adult resident in 2013, according to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s Vision 2025 Report Card. The state fares only marginally better in terms of venture capital funding, ranking 36th with per capita spending levels far below the national average and only one-tenth the level of what is spent in California, which leads the nation in venture capital investment.

The article also cited ongoing effort to catalyze innovation and business start-ups in the state, most notably a $285 million infusion in state funds into the 21st Century Research and Technology fund in the last two years alone, along with a tax and regulatory climate that ranks as among the most business-friendly in the country, according to the Vision 2025 report.

Another bright spot, which wasn’t mentioned in the article, is the impact of university-based research and technology transfer on the state’s economic landscape. Indiana is fortunate to have two of the nation’s largest and most prestigious research universities within its borders in Indiana University and Purdue University, both of which have extremely sophisticated technology commercialization operations designed to support the innovation of their respective faculty members.

At IU, that work is led by the IU Research & Technology Corporation, which since its creation in 1997 has supported the research of our faculty and students to help generate more than 2,500 inventions, resulting in over 1,500 U.S. patent applications, and facilitated the formation of more than 80 startup companies.

The pace of technology commercialization at IU has increased in recent years, especially in the growing life sciences fields where IU has emerged as a state and national leader. In fact, during fiscal year 2013 (the most recent year for which data are available) IU led all Big 10 universities with 16 business start-ups, 14 of which were formed here in Indiana, and fiscal year 2015 will be a record year for patents issued to the IURTC.

IU and IURTC are constantly seeking new avenues to support the expertise of our faculty and students to foster an entrepreneurial spirit that leads to new business development. A prime example is IURTC’s Spin Up program, created in 2012 to provide seed funding and other support to fledgling businesses generated by IU faculty. In its first three years, Spin Up has helped found 24 companies, and raise more than $2 million for its companies, creating 30 new entrepreneurs among IU faculty – including seven women – along the way. IU also has a long-standing policy of supporting our student entrepreneurs to ensure they enjoy full ownership of their intellectual property.

One last statistic bears sharing: $2.5 billion. That represents the amount of research spending generated by IU faculty, staff and students over the past five years. That is money spent in the state of Indiana to advance knowledge and discover new technologies that have the power to change lives here in Indiana and around the world.

That last statement is more than hyperbole from a proud university president. Consider these two examples:

  • Anagin LLC was founded by Anatha Shekhar, a professor in the IU School of Medicine, and Yvonne Lai a senior scientist in the IU Bloomington Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Anagin is developing the first drug of its kind to block the target mechanism of post-traumatic stress disorder in the brain without triggering the often-crippling side effects seen in other drugs.
  • Assembly Biosciences is a publicly traded biopharmaceutical company dedicated to developing treatments for hepatitis B and C, based on breakthrough research led by IU Bloomington professor Adam Zlotnick. These innovations, licensed through IURTC, offer real hope for significantly increasing the cure rates for these debilitating diseases.

To be sure, there is much more work to be done for Indiana to unlock its potential as a breeding ground for innovation and entrepreneurial success, including increased collaboration between government, the private sector and our state’s universities. That work has already begun on a number of fronts, and Indiana University is committed to playing a large role in strengthening those bonds.

At the same time, the university’s recently adopted strategic plan places faculty innovation, especially in the health and life sciences and technolgy, at the top of IU’s priority list. After all, every research dollar that IU faculty and staff bring in, and every IU invention that reaches the marketplace translates directly into a stronger university and a stronger Indiana economy.

McRobbie is president of Indiana University.