Commercialization: Promises, challenges
The movement of promising discoveries out of laboratories on Nevada’s campuses to create new companies and new jobs increasingly is a big hope of business leaders in the state.
But those on the front lines of commercialization say numerous potential stumbling blocks need to be overcome, and some of the biggest challenges may not be resolved for decades.
“This has got to be the future of our economy,” says Mike Skaggs, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Economic Development. “We’ve got to build companies around the brain cells of the people who live here. It’s of utmost importance.”
Whether it’s medical research at the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine or renewable energy research at Desert Research Institute, Skaggs says work in the state’s laboratories increasingly will be mined to create new jobs.
The message is getting to researchers at universities and laboratories.
“It’s a big push here,” says Alan Gertler, a research professor and executive director of Clean Technologies and Renewable Energy Center at DRI.
No one thinks that widespread commercialization of research from Nevada laboratories will be either easy or quick.
For starters, there simply isn’t a lot of intellectual property in the state that can be mined, says Jim Croce, chief executive officer of the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization.
The institute more commonly known as NIREC is a public-private partnership headquartered at Incline Village.
Per-capita investment in research in Nevada is close to the bottom among the 50 states, Croce says, as the state historically has relied on industries such as gaming and tourism that require relatively little technology support.
And much of the intellectual property that’s developed at the state’s colleges, no matter how promising, is far from ready for immediate commercialization.
“UNR’s research is generally on early-stage technologies. Whether that research is basic or applied, significant development work is usually needed to even fully gauge the commercial potential of the technology,” says Ryan Heck, a patent attorney who heads the Technology Transfer Office that serves the University of Nevada, Reno, and DRI.
The private sector, Heck says, seldom is interested in making the long-term investments necessary to develop basic research findings into concepts that are ready for commercialization.
Then, too, the culture of a university campus doesn’t lend itself to the patents and other protection of intellectual property that the private sector demands.
“I’m a scientist at heart,” says DRI’s Gertler. “I want to publish my findings and tell the world about them.”
In fact, Heck notes, the very mission of a land-grant college such as UNR is delivery of useful information and technology to aid the public a mission that doesn’t necessarily require monetization, although generation of revenue is a priority of the Technology Transfer Office.
“The important thing is for the public to get the benefit of the technology,” he says.
On the other side of the fence, NIREC’s Croce says that some industrial sectors have been slow to embrace research findings, especially disruptive technology that fundamentally changes their business.
Big energy companies, for instance, often have been reluctant to embrace renewable-energy technology that would force them to reinvent the way they do business.
“There’s an increased need for small businesses to do the major game-changing innovation,” Croce says.
Two more roadblocks also hamper commercialization of technology in the state: Nevada has a fairly small pool of technologically skilled workers to support newly created companies, and the state doesn’t have well-developed systems to link potential investors with the researchers who develop promising technology.
The patents to discoveries in university labs are held by the Nevada System of Higher Education, but individual researchers get a big cut of licensing fees.
“It’s a very generous deal,” says Gertler. “It encourages people within the system to go out there and market their work.”
The New Nevada Task Force, a group of business leaders pulled together by Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki this summer, will look seriously in coming months at the roadblocks that limit commercialization efforts.
“We need to sort all of this out,” says Skaggs. “Once the gaps are known, they can be filled.”
NIREC, he says, may show the way as it works with startup companies that are developing products for the renewable energy industry.
The institute makes grants to early-stage companies to help them bridge the gap between the lab and market-ready products, and it provides entrepreneurial expertise to help with the business side.
Three companies have completed NIREC’s nurturing, and all three have raised additional investor funding.
“They’re still alive and well,” Croce says. The organization has approved two more groups of companies for funding and mentoring, and it’s opened the door for applications from a fourth group.
In some instances, NIREC has provided assistance to California researchers who would establish companies in Nevada.
“We have to open our borders to intellectual property,” Croce says.
Skaggs praises NIREC as “a solutions-based model.”
“They’ve got a good sense of what the market is looking for,” say the executive director of the state’s economic development commission.
Heck and marketer Michael Birdsell is knocking on laboratory doors on campus in the search for research that has possibilities in the marketplace.
Nearly 30 technologies available for licensing from are listed on the technology transfer office Web site. (See them at tto.nevada.edu.)
Gov. Steve Sisolak made it clear Wednesday night his latest directive urging as many Nevadans as can to stay home is not martial law but a plea for everyone not in a critical, essential industry to not go out and possibly spread the coronavirus.