The Innovation Gateway team sat down with P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU’s new vice president for research and innovation, to discuss his vision and agenda for innovation and technology transfer at VCU.
He is coming to VCU from the University of Minnesota, where he was associate dean for research and professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, with a joint appointment in the medical school as professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine. As an entrepreneur, Dr. Rao has co-founded both a pharmaceutical and a medical device company, bringing direct experience in translating technology from scientific discovery to a viable business.
What is your vision for increasing innovation and boosting technology transfer at VCU?
Innovation drives a research-intensive university, and as such VCU has an essential role in transforming society through the discoveries that we make. We have an obligation to taxpayers and to the community who help us to be who we are, and we aspire to be even better.
The trend of decreased governmental funding for research presses us to be creative in encouraging new public-private partnerships. We need to create opportunities for our industrial partners to understand that VCU is easy to work with. This hasn’t always been historically true for universities. I want to improve our processes for collaborating with partners to show that we can work well with industry, resulting in better, more creative licensing opportunities. We also need to support start-up activities. Start-ups are a vehicle that allows for further maturation of research and technologies that, while transformative, are often early-stage. Whether licensing to industry or a start-up, our goal is to get these innovations to the best partner to develop them further to a point where they can have an impact on society.
We want companies to be interested in partnering with VCU early on, recognizing that our ideas are sharp enough to risk investment. We are also working with faculty to validate and mature their technologies and move them to the next stage of development by providing or facilitating proofs of concept.
Are you planning any specific initiatives that would accelerate bringing VCU inventions from the bench to the public?
My agenda is focused on fast-tracking VCU’s discoveries and innovations to the public, improving collaborations with industry partners, and increasing startup activity. We are enhancing technology commercialization through a fourfold effort: streamlining licensing, accelerating IP validation and de-risking, building strong industry and investor relationships, and optimizing communication and marketing.
Streamlining licensing at VCU is a major opportunity. By adopting the best practices of our peers, we have an opportunity to similarly position VCU as a destination university for partnerships. Streamlined licensing includes adopting express licensing templates with investor-friendly terms, express licensing for software, as well as express licensing for our existing technology inventory. We are also rethinking industry engagement by optimizing licensing arrangements for industry-sponsored research. Having business-friendly licensing terms will incentivize more companies to collaborate with and sponsor research at VCU.
We are also growing and optimizing the VCU Commercialization Fund so that it continues to mature early-stage inventions into desirable opportunities for commercialization. Early-stage discoveries are risky business opportunities, there is uncertainty in how the market will react, and uncertainty in how robust a product based on the discovery might be. Proof-of-concept funding, like the VCU Commercialization Fund, serves an important role in reducing business risk to increase the value and desirability of early-stage discoveries. In addition to our own internal fund, we are expanding our efforts that support VCU faculty in seeking external proof-of-concept funding. We will continue to expand our Commercialization Advisory Panel that provides the voice of industry and investors on the value and commercial pathways for our early-stage inventions. Down the road, I’d like to see our Panel expand to become a network of successful alumni, industry experts, investors, and entrepreneurs that can help us bring VCU innovations to the public quicker.
We are also looking to provide VCU students experiential learning opportunities in technology transfer. Besides traditional research in laboratories or in communities, we have a unique opportunity to engage students by leveraging the resources of the VCU da Vinci Center and OVPRI’s Innovation Gateway and VCU Ventures. We will focus on cultivating collaborations between these entities to have students participate in market research, customer discovery and market validation. I think in the near future, you’ll see student teams pitching start-up concepts based on VCU discoveries at events like Pre-X, Innovation Challenge, and start-up weekends.