NUtech Ventures Helps UNL Inventors Protect, Commercialize Discoveries

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Guiding research and new knowledge at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln can be described as an innovation machine — one that results in new jobs for UNL graduates and value to its stakeholders, partners and the community.

It’s all fueled by global competitiveness, but also by the attitude and culture change that has taken place in Lincoln since 2005, moving Nebraska’s capital city to a growing center of innovation. The university has been a large part of growing the infrastructure that educates students, provides a place and support for invention to occur and incubate, helps with funding and marketing — and building up the city and state of Nebraska to support innovation.

Brad Roth is the executive director of NUtech Ventures, the technology commercialization arm of UNL. Roth holds a doctorate in crop genetics and heads a team of technology licensing professionals who work with UNL faculty, staff and students on their latest inventions. The goal is to protect new knowledge, discoveries and inventions — the intellectual property — and commercialize them for the public good. NUtech Ventures also connects innovators with the mentors and resources they need to start companies, develop products and create jobs, Roth said, “so UNL technologies can change the world.”

NUtech Ventures serves all of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, including City Campus, East Campus and all of the UNL offices and research facilities throughout Nebraska.

“There is never a dull moment,” Roth said.

The NUtech Ventures team of scientists and legal professionals specializes in many fields of expertise, including biochemistry, microbiology, nanomaterials, commercialization, contract negotiations and compliance, accounting and marketing. The NUtech Ventures’ team members evaluate each of the 100-plus innovations submitted to them each year, Roth said. Each innovation undergoes a screening evaluation, and the team determines whether the technology can be patented, the potential value in the marketplace and the readiness of the technology to be commercialized.

Processing innovation

Innovations may be new “widgets,” as Roth calls them; they may be processes; they may be systems that bring many things together that haven’t been brought together in the past. Or, Roth said, they may be unique biological materials, like plant varieties, cell lines, antibodies or vaccines. Plant varieties, including but not limited to wheat and other small grains, dry beans, soybeans and grasses, can be protected via Plant Variety Protection as set up by the United States government.

“We’ll expend resources to file patents, then market the technology to companies that may be interested in it,” Roth said. NUtech Ventures completes the license agreements to enable companies to use those technologies for their new products. The NUtech team looks at the market and determines the innovation’s value for commercialization. Sometimes it takes several years to license an innovation because a market hasn’t been fully realized, he said; other times, a technology is so much of a breakthrough with a strong market pull that it is licensed immediately.

Through the evaluation process, the team challenges itself to determine where an innovation fits in the marketplace, and at times, the potential applications and uses may extend to additional markets not initially envisioned, Roth said. Sometimes, NUtech’s conversations with a company will lead to the opportunity for a company to sponsor research on campus in a specific interest area. “That kind of partnership not only helps with innovation; it helps with further developing innovations on behalf of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln,” he explained. In other instances, NUtech’s conversations with companies may also result in an opportunity for a company to become interested in other UNL innovations and inventors.

“In a nutshell, that is our mission: to serve the campus. We want to be a leading technology transfer organization among universities,” he added.

UNL as an invention generator

University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty, staff and students are engaged in research with the intent to create new knowledge and invent new and better products and processes. The world benefits from these discoveries, whether it’s a better, more reliable food supply or a vaccine that protects a human or animal from disease.

Roth said the intellectual property policy of the university is set out by the Board of Regents. In general, the policy states that for innovations created with substantial university resources, on behalf of the university or in line with employee job responsibilities, the innovations are owned by the university, and there is an obligation to assign those intellectual property rights to the university, he explained.

When a discovery is commercialized and income is generated, there is a royalty-sharing policy that distributes percentages to the inventor and to other parts of the university, including the inventor’s college. NUtech Ventures also receives a percentage for its assistance with evaluation, protection, commercialization and marketing of the innovation.

Nebraska Innovation Campus

Nurturing innovation is so essential to the public good, the economy and job creation that UNL built Nebraska Innovation Campus to provide a place where innovative “collisions” can occur, where entrepreneurs can build their companies, where assistance can be found with protecting and commercializing innovations and where university experts, students and businesses can work together.

“I really applaud then-UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and the late Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Prem Paul for the vision for Nebraska Innovation Campus,” Roth said.

Part of Nebraska Innovation Campus is a multiuse space called Nebraska Innovation Studio where, Roth said, inventors can build prototypes of their innovations. NUtech Ventures is located on Nebraska Innovation Campus, in the same office suite as the research campus administrative offices.

Nebraska Innovation Campus offers innovation advancement suites, offices and conference rooms and soon, biotechnology connector laboratories, located in the Food Innovation Center, which houses the UNL Department of Food Science and Technology, including The Food Processing Center.

NUtech Ventures’ personnel also operate NMotion, the Lincoln-based public-private startup accelerator that accepts an annual class of up to seven startup companies for an intensive 100-day program. NMotion and its director, Brian Ardinger, help each entrepreneur validate the company’s idea and customer base, help develop a minimal viable product and help the entrepreneur pitch the company to investors.

“They work really hard for 100 days,” Roth said. “The idea is to have an annual program where the result is more value for the community and for investors. We also hope there is more job generation and more of a landing place for graduates of the university,” he said. NMotion is a partnership that includes UNL, NUtech Ventures, local businesses and investors, Invest Nebraska and the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce that fits well within the Lincoln and Nebraska startup ecosystem, he added. “It really puts the university right in the middle of the startup ecosystem.”

Changing the world

Roth said the university, the state and the federal government invest a great deal in research. As a result, “we feel a real responsibility to see that put to good use, so it can benefit society. There is great research going on here that could change the world. That’s what we want to be about.” [ ]