|For NC State inventors, the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) is a major crossroads on the road from innovation to commercialization. Using a mix of technical analysis, marketing, and negotiating skill, OTT Director Dr. Donna Cookmeyer and her staff translate research discoveries into products and services that generate money and prestige for the University--and create jobs and economic investment for North Carolina.
The scores of inventions by faculty, staff, and students--more than 200 were disclosed in 2002-03 alone--must first be reviewed to determine how each stacks up in terms of scientific merit and commercial potential. OTT's five case managers draw on their backgrounds in business, engineering, and science and work with the faculty members on the University's Intellectual Property Committee to determine which ideas may be ready for prime time. "With the complexity of new inventions and all of the business issues to be addressed, tech transfer has changed in recent years from being handled primarily by attorneys to being taken care of by people with a good degree of technical or business expertise," Cookmeyer says.
Cookmeyer herself fits that description, having earned a degree in chemistry from MIT and a Ph.D. in genetics from Penn before coming to NC State to do post-doctoral research in plant virology. She then spent five years at the Defense Department overseeing university research programs. "It gave me a chance to see new science and influence policy," she says. Those opportunities have continued at NC State, where she has led the technology transfer effort for much of the past three years.
With missionary zeal and a voluble personality, Cookmeyer educates the NC State community about the opportunities presented by technology transfer through seminars, guest lectures in courses, and management strategy discussions. She and her staff not only work with attorneys to get patents filed, they also act as marketing consultants and promoters, identifying companies that could benefit from new technology and pitching licensing opportunities to them. "Our goal in OTT is to do more," she says, "to engage more faculty and more departments, to create more opportunities for the innovative people at NC State to make a difference."
For Dr. Chris Daubert, an assistant professor of food science and engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cookmeyer's staff found a major food manufacturer to license his whey protein thickener. Daubert began developing the thickener seven years ago to help patients with swallowing disorders. The starches and gums traditionally used to thicken foods are hard to control and have little nutritional value, he says. So he began manipulating the protein structures within whey, a dairy byproduct that usually is discarded, by heating and adding food-grade acids. "This is an alternative to starch when you want more natural ingredients or extra proteins in products like baby food, yogurt, or nutritional drinks," he says.
For entrepreneurial faculty members who want to retain more control over the commercialization of their inventions, OTT staff consult on creating spin-off companies, recruit experienced executives, and even meet with investors who can help the start-ups get off the ground.
To launch BioMarck Pharmaceuticals Ltd., OTT staff linked alumni looking for investment opportunities with Drs. Ken Adler and Linda Martin, who discovered a peptide that could lead to drugs for respiratory ailments like asthma and chronic bronchitis. In trying to learn more about the MARCKS protein, the two College of Veterinary Medicine cell biologists not only found that it plays a pivotal role in controlling mucous secretion into the airway, they also unexpectedly discovered one of their test reagents actually blocks the protein and stops secretions.
Adler and Martin chose to form BioMarck so development of their peptide wouldn't get lost in a major pharmaceutical company's research division. Meanwhile, they continue studying MARCKS and how their peptide works. "We're giving it the greatest chance to lead to useful technology," Martin says.
Creating useful and beneficial technology is what OTT strives for, Cookmeyer says, noting that the office monitors licensees and spin-offs to make sure they continue to advance the products. "Tech transfer is driven by the hope of making a difference," she says. "Very few inventions will make a lot of money, but many, in their own way, in the right hands, will make things better."
"Our goal in OTT is to do more--to engage more faculty and more departments, to create more opportunities for the innovative people at NC State to make a difference."