MOBILE, Alabama – Innovation is more than a buzz word found in glossy brochures for the University of South Alabama’s Technology and Research Park.
It’s the world-class research being conducted in unassuming labs campuswide that have consistently ranked the Mobile institution among Forbes’ top 20 research schools – out of about 4,000 nationwide – for its rate of return on licensed developments.
And with the national economic downturn slowly releasing its near death-grip on federal research funding and the proliferation of angel investment networks, USA’s vice president for research and economic development said the time is now to leverage the school’s collaborative philosophy and become the catalyst the Port City’s economy needs to cement its place on the world stage.
“Mobile has been incredibly successful bringing in industry,” said Lynne Chronister, pointing to such successes as Austal USA, ThyssenKrupp and Airbus.
“What Mobile hasn’t done in the past is focus on building our own stable of startups, and that’s where we can help,” she said, pointing to Silicon Valley’s unrivaled technological commercialization boom that began 30 years ago with only a handful of fledgling companies.
“Mobile has the manufacturing base and is fantastic at (industrial) recruitment and retention, but we need to build a foundation of high-tech startups, and we’re a piece of that puzzle…It’s simply a matter of putting all of the available resources together in a way that encourages innovation,” she said.
So while Mobile might be attracting the foreign investment and attention that make economic development officials swoon, Chronister said true innovation is the only way to ensure that growth is sustained.
In turn, myriad initiatives underway at USA’s Technology and Research Park – in collaboration with the USA Foundation for Research and Commercialization – are designed to prevent the entire Gulf Coast region from squandering that potential by establishing proactive, “synergistic” partnerships with industry, she said
Specifically, the park – established in 2003 – characterizes itself as the “catalyst that advances regional development in a collaborative, principled, entrepreneurial manner by directing resources at innovative endeavors that respect and elevate the economic, environmental and social well-being of the region.”
“Obviously, the goal is to expand that reach,” Chronister said.
W. K. “Ker” Ferguson, assistant vice president for USA’s Office of Research and Economic Development, said expansion of the park’s facilities can be expected within the next few years, and the university is already “in communication” with a potential partner working on the “same two-year timeframe.”
In fact, barely one week ago, Airbus’ Chief Technology Officer Jean Botti stated publicly that USA is now a prime contender to land collaborative projects with the European aerospace giant moving forward after he witnessed the level of research being conducted in areas such as composite materials, cybersecurity, propulsion systems and even what can easily translate to cabin and seat design for aircraft.
But what exactly about USA’s approach is turning the heads of high-tech decisions makers?
“It’s three things really,” said Chronister. “Our staffing and equipment are unparalleled for a school this size; we have a cadre of faculty who are very interested in transformative, translational research; and our commitment to collaboration across disciplines and departments continues to attract researchers with that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Bear in mind, USA’s enrollment totals only about 15,000 students, and it currently collects annual license income from university-generated research of only about $2 million, “so it’s not a huge research program like the ones you find at UAB or others,” she said. For instance, prior to joining USA in October 2012, Chronister served as assistant vice provost for research at the University of Washington where sponsored awards totaled more than $1.5 billion.
“Despite that, we have faculty interested in making sure their research and technological developments will transfer to practice,” she said, noting the role of the park and its collaborations is to ramp up development and commercialization of those homegrown innovations.
Yet only a small percentage of the research honed in a university setting ever actually finds its way to the marketplace, and Ferguson said he and the staff of four others have identified proven methods to boost USA’s success rate.
There’s no lack of mutual interest between the university and local industry in pursuing this level of cooperation and partnership, he said, but establishing the contractual relationships can be burdensome.
In turn, the office is partnering with the nonprofit USA Foundation for Research and Commercialization to “allow us to be more responsive to the needs of both our researchers and of industrial community we’re working to support.”
In addition, the Coastal Innovation Hub is slated to open in September and will function as the area’s first technology-centered business incubator, anchored by university commercialization spinoffs and designed to attract new technology startups.
In addition, USA’s Coastal Innovation Hub– as its name implies – is intended to become a regional nucleus for technological advancement and growth because as Chronister noted, “There isn’t one between Bay St. Louis (Miss.) and Pensacola (Fla.).”
And that’s precisely why the incubator – when it opens in September – will be led by Mark Weaver, director of USA’s Melton Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Mitchell College of Business.
Bridging the gap
Meanwhile, Andrew Byrd, USA’s marketing and licensing associate, manages intellectual property and is in the process of creating a comprehensive portfolio that – in addition to showcasing USA’s research competencies, can be used as a marketing tool designed to illustrate to potential licensees exactly what developments USA researchers have available and in the development pipeline.
Indeed, from gene therapy – including everything from biomarker identification to mitochondrial DNA repair – and the development of targeted cancer drugs to advanced imaging and hybrid composite materials technology, Byrd said there are currently 12 technologies currently in some state of review for the patent pipeline.
A separate portfolio, Chronister said, is being compiled specifically for Airbus which has requested an early September meeting to discuss in detail USA’s opportunities for “interactive research” with the aerospace giant.
And there, Ferguson said, is that recurring idea.
“We’ve got world-class researchers whose peers you can count on one hand,” he said, calling it a “phenomenal development” for a growing research university that barely dabbled in the practice 10 years ago.
While the welcoming Gulf Coast climate, affordability and southern hospitality no doubt contribute to these researchers’ quality of life, Ferguson said it is the spirit of collaboration pervading almost every aspect of USA’s research programs that earns the highest praise from transplants and recruits.
Consider, for instance, the endoscope mentioned above. That project is the culmination of collaborative research between “rock star” researchers in USA’s molecular biology and mechanical engineering programs, Byrd said.
“It’s the ability and freedom to collaborate, pure and simple, that’s attracting this attention.” he said.
“And it’s up to us,” Chronister said, “to help these innovations find their way into the world.”