Brains to bucks

Nov 062007
Authors: Erik Myers

A yearly diet of ever-increasing funds has long provided fuel for CSU’s research programs to achieve scientific breakthroughs and innovative technologies. While such advancements can help improve the quality of life for billions around the world, they’ve also generated big bucks for the individual researchers themselves, as well as the economy of Fort Collins and Colorado.

But difficulties are encountered when moving from laboratory to cubicle, so says Mark Wdowik.

“Forming a company is easy, it’s just a legal process,” Wdowik said. “Making a successful company is really hard. You’ve really got to be able to weather a storm. You’ve really got to be committed to it.”

Wdowik is president and CEO of CSU Ventures. The group exists within the CSU Research Foundation, an affiliated entity of the university that offers business consulting to CSU researchers who want to make their work marketable.

“We don’t put money into the companies, but we can help them do all the things that they may not have the set skills to do,” Wdowik said.

Also, starting up a company is a lengthy and complicated process that can require decades of commitment before it can achieve a solid commercial impact. For the professors and grad students who have no idea how to go about the complex process, CSURF says they’re here to help.

Wdowik said technology’s commercial dimension is very different from the one CSURF dealt with in the 1980’s; researchers can no longer just “rent out” their discoveries.

“In (CSURF’s) traditional transfer model, we would protect patents and find potential licensees, existing companies that was out there that were willing to pay us money to make use of (a researcher’s) intellectual property,” Wdowik said. “But the world’s changing. Companies aren’t so willing to take a look at high risk, early stage innovation coming out of laboratories until its’ proven to work.”

When researchers come to CSURF with a desire to commercialize, they are often encouraged to simply start their own business, one centered around their own creation. This way, Wdowik said, one can prove the scientific and commercial effectiveness of their invention through sales.

To fund a new company, Wdowik or other consultants help researchers secure grant money from federal programs such as the Small Business Innovation Research program. With $100,000 secured, researchers will enter “Phase I” of CSURF’s start-up process and are given six months to prove the company commercially feasible.

Once that’s accomplished, CSURF will help secure $750,000 to a start-up, beginning “Phase II”, and giving researchers the opportunity to validate themselves in the marketplace.

“And if that’s successful, then investors will come in the door,” Wdowik said.

CSURF works as a non-profit organization but does collect a share of the royalties produced by a company. According to the Academic Faculty and Administrative Professional Manual, CSURF receives reimbursement from its start-up companies for their services in marketing, patenting and licensing. Reimbursement is also paid out to the Division of Continuing Education (DCE) for the equipment and materials used in research.

Following reimbursement payments, royalties from sales of the “academic materials” are split: 35 percent to creators, 20 percent to CSURF, 20 percent to DCE, 15 percent to the provost’s office and 10 percent to the department from which the researcher was employed. Wdowik says that, as a not-for-profit group, CSURF directed its funds into its own infrastructure so it could continue to service the CSU community.

Wdowik added that the monetary impact of a start-up went far beyond an individual’s pocket.

“(Start-ups) produce local jobs, the more companies we can provide here in this region, that provides opportunities for students who are graduating from here that don’t want to go to other states to find employment,” Wdowik said. “They help the economy, the job situation and they helps bring tax base to the state of Colorado, so it’s all good.”

Even when a start-up from CSU sells its business or moves to a different state, benefit can still be gained from the entrepreneur researcher, says Wdowik, citing a recent buyout of University of Colorado start-up, Myogen, by California-based Gilead Sciences as an example.

“What we’re seeing with the Myogen case in particular is that nobody wants to go to California, where Gilead is located,” Wdowik said. “There’s a good likelihood that all these people who started businesses are going to stay here, and they’re going to start new businesses. We need these kinds of serial entrepreneurs.”

Since the beginning of the year, Wdowik said, CSURF has seen 11 start-up companies take off, and while he hadn’t seen any of the companies go under, the start-up process can be a tough one.

Local company, Envirofit, began its work as a non-profit organization in 2006, developing direct injection engine retrofitting at affordable prices for companies in Southeast Asia, which in turn sell them for cheap to poor residents. Jamie Whitlock, Envirofit project coordinator, said the partnership required many months in Southeast Asia, dealing with international businessmen.

“It’s been a lot of time spent in other countries,” Whitlock said. “Our main market before now was in the Philippines. At least one of (the founders) was over there every single month.”

Assistant News Editor Erik Myers can be reached at

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