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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

UVM's 'Shark Tank'-Like Panel Helps Scientist Pitch Ideas To Industry

Courtesy Ryan McDevitt
This is a small satellite. UVM researchers have won funding to develop special thrusters to better control the satellite's positioning as it's orbiting the earth. The tiny pink squares are arrays containing thousands of thrusters.

For many scientists, turning the results of their research into tools, products or patents means navigating the challenging — and often foreign — world of business. However, a "Shark Tank"-like effort at the University of Vermont that connects research scientists with industry leaders may offer a solution.

The idea started with a research scientist at Stanford.  For 20 years Daria Mochly-Rosen worked as chemist, researching different pharmaceutical therapies. 

But she was frustrated that no one was licensing the patents that Stanford filed on some discoveries. So she says she took a year off to start her own company.

"Starting the company and actually working for a year in the company, I learned more than I've learned in the previous 20 years ... [in] school and work in academia," says Mochly-Rosen.

Mochly-Rosen says the drug she developed for patients on dialysis didn't quite pan out. But with  help from some in the pharmaceutical industry, she got a different dialysis drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Now it's being used to help patients.

Escaping the 'Ivory Tower'

But that wasn't enough for Mochly-Rosen — she wanted other research scientists to have this exposure to how industry works, and what it takes to create a meaningful, useable product.

"I felt that what I've learned and has made me a different scientist," she says.

So, Mochly-Rosen started a pitch panel called SPARKwhere industry leaders came in to listen to academic scientists pitch their ideas. She wanted to offer big grant money as a prize, but in the end she was able to only scrape together $50,000.

It turns out that's just enough cash to help scientists run another study to replicate findings or to test market viability— things that are traditionally hard to find funding for in academia. 

The pitch

Standing at a podium in a darkened basement auditorium at UVM's campus, Ryan McDevitt makes his pitch for propulsion technology for satellites.

He received his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at UVM in 2014, and, along with his advisor, started a company to develop this technology.

"Getting to space is expensive, and  each of these satellites costs $250,000 to put in orbit," says McDevitt. "When you  build at low altitude, you're subject to atmosphere drag, that causes these things to wobble and drift out of alignment with each other."

The problem he's addressing is that many satellites out in space just float around in orbit, and there's no easy way to reposition them or hold them in a fixed point.

But McDevitt's team figured out a way.

Now it's the panel's job to push back and see if the idea is realistic, executable and economically viable.

"One of my big concerns about geeks like I usually watch here, is you've got too many really good ideas, and you can’t focus," says panelist Bob DeVore, who specializes in health care and information technology.

"So what you're saying is you've looked at both of those markets, and this one here is much preferable?" he asks McDevitt.

McDevitt responds to his question, explaining that his team intentionally selected the idea that has a shorter timeline to bring to market.  

Even though the feedback can be tough, this kind of expert questioning is why even those who don't end up winning SPARK grants say that the process still helps them. 

In the end, McDevitt’s team did win a grant, and some praise from that same panelist.

"I'm not necessarily known for giving out compliments, but I will tell you, this is the best presentation today— by far," says DeVore.

The moderator chimes in that it's an impressive compliment coming from DeVore, and the panel laughs.

The importance of commercialization

Over the course of several hours, eight researchers presented. Their ideas ranged from using bird cells to treat lung disease, to a gaming app to reduce obesity in kids.

It’s commonplace for schools in Silicon Valley and Cambridge to have close connections with industry, but now industry can benefit from the smarts of smaller schools too.

Since SPARK began at Stanford ten years ago, it's expanded to more than 40 universities around the world, including UVM — where the College of Medicine first implemented the idea about five years ago.

SPARK has already helped catalyze several products to begin the development process at UVM, including an earlier iteration of McDevitt's team's satellite propulsion research.

At UVM, when a professor patents a product or an idea, it's owned 50 percent by the professor and 50 percent by the university. If the product is eventually licensed to an outside company, the details of the sale are worked out by the university and the professor.

Richard Galbraith, UVM’s vice president for research, says the university usually breaks even in terms of the money it spends to patent ideas and test commercial viability, and the money that  fruitful products bring in.

"It's not about making money, it's about putting it into a system where somebody is going to make some money off it. But by doing that, it makes it available," says Galbraith. "Nothing's going to come of it unless it's commercialized."

Galbraith points out that this is the reason the Bayh-Dole Act was passed: it requires federal grant awardees to have mechanisms to develop the inventions that come out of their research.

The SPARK panel is one of the tools UVM is using to do just that.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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