By Jay Fidell
The University will always be a seminal vessel of science and tech innovation in Hawaii. As it goes, so goes our future. Some say, however, that it hasn’t come close to realizing its potential, noting that it hasn’t made money on IVF, green mice, ALOHAnet, GMO crops, or anything else you can think of.
The Office of Technology Transfer and Educational Development (OTTED) should be the core of the tech transfer experience at UH, but it has not given us any big hits and in fact UH patents and royalties have been disappointing.
LOSS OF STEAM
While the UH connection with the tech community outside Manoa was vital in the early 2000’s, it seemed to lose steam during the McClain years, and at this point the Manoa to Bishop Street connection seems more distant than before.
Where ten years ago, private sector entrepreneurs used to ask their colleagues whether they had “hugged their [UH] researcher today,” they don’t say that any more. Times and perceptions have changed.
With the decline becoming obvious, UH President M.R.C. Greenwood’s idea for a “President’s Advisory Council on Innovation and Technology Advancement,” namely a tech advisory council, is a great idea, and kudos to her for identifying the problem and taking this timely and affirmative step to deal with it.
Linda Lingle could have had a tech advisory council like this under Act 178 adopted under Cayetano, but she ignored that opportunity, so Greenwood’s move is a big and important step forward after an eight year gubernatorial hiatus that ran parallel to what was happening in Manoa under McClain.
Let’s look at Greenwood’s appointments, as reported in the Advertiser on April 5th. After all, the likelihood of success is directly proportional to the quality of those appointments. She looks to them to provide “recommendations that will help us set the course for our journey from where we are to where we want to be as leaders in the area of research, innovation and technology.”
Alphabetically, she appointed:
• Carl Bonham, executive director of UHERO and economics professor.
• Daniel Goldin, CEO of The Intellisis Corp., headquartered in San Diego.
• Katharine Ku, director of the Office of Technology Licensing at Stanford.
• Jim Lally, former general manager at Intel and member of the UH Foundation Board of Trustees.
• Brian Taylor, dean of SOEST.
• Barry Weinman, venture capitalist and chairman of the UH Foundation Board of Trustees.
• Mary Walshok, vice chancellor and dean of extended studies at UCSD.
• Hank Wuh, CEO of Cellular Bioengineering, a local tech company.
We’ll soon see whether these are the optimal nominees. They’re supposed to issue a report to Greenwood in August, four months from now. Hopefully, the panel will proceed with alacrity and provide fast and functional results. Heel dragging would undermine Greenwood’s vision, so time is of the essence.
WILL IT WORK
Will this work? The jury is out, or perhaps it hasn’t yet been fully impaneled. Are the appointments complete or a work in progress, capable of continuation or reconstitution after the initial report? This panel could be watershed and have a huge affect on the state’s future. Hopefully, it will not be, and will last much longer than, a typical one-shot disappearing task force.
What we haven’t had over the Lingle years is a truly representative tech group that represented all three legs of the community stool - education, industry and government. Could Greenwood’s panel move into that space?
There are some political people on the panel, but that’s not necessarily a negative. By definition, they can get things done. And there are some academicians from the mainland on the panel who may not be entirely familiar with the way things work in Hawaii, but that’s not a bad thing either. They bring fresh experience and provide input not otherwise available.
I think eight is probably a good number for collaborative thinking, but I also wonder if they might be better off with more of the tech and business deans and advocates and more local investors, entrepreneurs and professionals who can tell them about the pipeline between Manoa and local tech companies. Wouldn’t the dean of the engineering school be an essential member?
Is it okay not to include anyone from Asia? One of our most valuable prospects is the abiding hope Hawaii can still be a bridge to Asia. And yet, here again, we do not include a single member from Asia. Would they be unwilling to serve?
POINTS TO CONSIDER
It’s too bad we lost OTTED's Dick Cox to Notre Dame. That’s always a risk when you’re not spending enough money on your OTTED office. Perhaps the panel might recommend bringing in tech transfer talent from other universities, expand OTTED in personnel and resources and, in a word, throw real money at it.
OTTED never seemed to have enough money to actually fund utility patent applications, and only had minimum money to fund provisional applications. Perhaps Greenwood might have skipped right to the bottom line and thrown money at OTTED in lieu of appointing a panel to tell her the same thing.
We have much to do to make UH a great science university. There needs to be an open exchange among all science departments. I’m reminded of Bob Olson at the New Fitzsimmons Tech Park near Denver, who brought the researchers together for frequent meals and talks because he knew the most important thing was for them to share their excitement. Perhaps the panel could look for ways to achieve the same level of conversation, and excitement, in Manoa.
We have a long way to go to encourage the researchers to commercialize their work. It’s really a gold mine with veins running throughout the University. We have to give the researchers confidence that if they come forward with their IP, they’ll be well respected and received. This has not always been the case.
The panel might also address the rules for sharing of interests in IP obtained through OTTED. Should the rules be changed? Are the proportions shared among UH, the researchers and the departments in balance, or do they need adjustment? Given current productivity, some changes do seem necessary.
What about classified research under UARC? We haven’t heard much about UARC since the protest and “sit in” in David McClain’s office a few years ago. Most people I know would support UARC or would at least like to know more about it – is it happening, and providing benefits to the state? Certainly, the panel should explore what’s going on in that area and expand it as necessary.
SHIFT IN THINKING
The council is a great idea and long in coming. It signals a shift in thinking by this university administration. It now remains for the panel to write a thoughtful and reasoned report, and for the administration to properly implement that report rather than put it quietly on the shelf, where so many other reports have gone.
This could be the start of new and possibly enormous revenues for UH, money that would help run the University but would also expand science in our state. This kind of revenue is mission critical, so it’s important for the panelists and the administration to perform their duties to the highest standard possible.
We wish the panel well and hope they do the work they were appointed to do in style and wisdom and without conflict. We hope their counsel is sound and persuasive and with it the administration can achieve Greenwood’s vision.
More than anything, we hope the panel and the administration will keep the public fully advised. This is all about building confidence. Secrecy or any lack of transparency on such an important project is not an appropriate option.