Fayette County

Todd to highlight UK's research gains, pitfalls

University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. will travel to Washington next week to tout how universities can foster a culture that encourages professors to form spin-off companies that can sell breakthrough research to corporations.

Todd is scheduled to lead a session on Wednesday called "From the Lab to the Marketplace — Crossing the Valley of Death" during a U.S. Department of Commerce forum. Todd, representing research universities, will be joined on the panel by Aneesh Chopra, of the U.S. chief technology office. They will address leaders in business, government and education.

The intersection between university research and private industries has become a key focus at UK and an increasingly lucrative effort as patent royalties roll in from advances developed on campus.

But navigating through patent laws and signing deals with companies are fraught with headaches and complications, Todd said in a recent interview.

"Too many universities want to negotiate royalty rates to the point that businesses just get frustrated and walk away," he said. "My concept is let's do deals. We may give away something, but you can put in blockbuster clauses that say if this thing really takes off, then you owe us money."

It's something UK is still trying to improve upon.

Todd said the administration is considering hiring an in-house attorney who specializes in patent law. But his preference would be for Kentucky to have a central patent office that all universities could share.

On campus, UK has taken steps to encourage professors to form companies that can work with corporations. The university has set up business and legal support for researchers.

And UK built the Advanced Science and Technology Commercialization Center in 1994 as an incubator facility for spin-off research companies.

Professors, such as John Anthony, who teaches chemistry, perform industrial research in that building to keep it separate from their academic research.

Anthony focuses on solar cell research in the classroom, and in his company's lab, Outrider Technologies, he develops molecules that can be used for flexible electronic displays.

But he said he hopes an emphasis in industrial work doesn't replace academic research. His work, for instance, came out of research funded through a federal grant. He formed molecules that some experts "questioned whether they even could be made."

"If I had been trying to focus from the start on materials with marketable applications, I can pretty much guarantee that we would not have come up with the materials we now have — too risky," he said.

All those are issues university officials have to balance, said Todd, who received six patents while receiving his post-graduate degrees in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.