Out of the Lab
How the UT Research Foundation helps move innovation from campus into the marketplace.
by jesse fox mayshark • march 8, 2021
hicham ghossein makes a presentation on his company, endeavor composites. (Photo courtesy of UTRF)
While completing his doctorate in engineering at the University of Tennessee, Hicham Ghossein knew that his work was of more than academic interest.
A nonprofit organization ensures UT's research makes an impact off campus.
With a research focus on composite materials, he was developing a process that would allow for the use of small pieces of carbon fiber that are typically considered waste byproducts. Ghossein’s innovation was to disperse 1-to-1 ½ inch fiber strands in water in a way that allowed him to produce nonwoven mats that can be layered with other composites to strengthen them.
“A lot of people praise carbon fiber, but what they don't tell you is that its production includes a lot of wasted material,” Ghossein said. “Production on a good day is a 70 percent yield. So 30 percent of the carbon fiber they produce goes straight to the landfill.”
His technology has obvious applications for industries including auto manufacturing that have increasingly turned to carbon composite materials for their lightweight strength.
Moving from lab research to commercial production is a complicated and costly process. In recent years, a whole support system has grown up around the nexus of research and innovation at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The goal is to turn the Knoxville area into a technology hub like North Carolina’s fabled Research Triangle, which is fueled by the work done at three major research universities.
Those efforts include new programs like ORNL’s Innovation Crossroads, UT’s growing Research Park at Cherokee Farm, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, and the just-announced Techstars business accelerator program. But they also include a much older institution, one that has helped commercialize research at the university for generations: the UT Research Foundation.
Created in 1935 by the state Legislature as the UT Research Corporation, the nonprofit organization’s mission is to protect intellectual property developed at the university and ensure that it can be put to commercial use and community benefit. In the FDR era, much of the research at the land-grant university revolved around agriculture.
“Our first patents that date back to the ‘30s or early ‘40s, as far as I know, are for strawberries,” said Maha Krishnamurthy, UTRF’s vice president. “We had these long-shelf-life strawberries that farmers needed.”
UT’s Institute of Agriculture still turns out plenty of patents, but of course research at the university has diversified across many scientific and technological fields. UTRF’s roles in working with researchers can be many, from filing the patents on their work to helping them either seek licensing opportunities or launch their own businesses.
“Basically, we have a four-prong mission,” Krishnamurthy said. “The first one is to help grow the research at the University, because the more research the university does, the better it is. The second one is really commercialization, taking that technology and transferring it to the marketplace. The third one is to grow and enable an entrepreneurial culture, be a support for the entrepreneurial culture within the university. And the fourth one, of course, is all of this leads to economic development.”
According to its most recent annual report, released in December, over the past five years UTRF has issued 134 licenses or options to private users, and 17 startup licenses. In that time, it has generated $10.7 million in license revenue.
Ghossein, a first-generation college student from Lebanon, is a good example of how the process works. With help from UTRF and support from his thesis adviser, Uday Vaidya, he turned his fiber technology into a start-up, Endeavor Composites.
“They really facilitate and promote the technology, they know how to speak the language of the science world and the business world to make them understand each other,” Ghossein said. “And they were very supportive and very encouraging for scientists to have IP, because the process they do was streamlined, it was clear, there wasn’t hidden fees or legal loopholes.”
Ghossein also took his company through ORNL’s Innovation Crossroads program.
By filing patents — which can cost up to $30,000 in the U.S. — UTRF also ensures that UT receives royalties on technology produced through university work. But researchers also receive a share.
“The first $5,000, before we can even recover any of our costs, we share with our researchers,” Krishnamurthy said. “ And then we recover our patent filing costs.”
After cost recovery, 40 percent of net revenues from a patent goes to the researchers, 15 percent to their department, 15 percent to their campus, and the final 30 percent is retained by UTRF to invest in future projects.
“I think they do a good job of acting as a liaison between the university and the real world,” said Graham Taylor, who cofounded T&T Scientific Corp. in 2015 with fellow researcher Nima Tamaddoni. They were both UT graduate students at the time.
T&T’s technology uses lipid nanoparticles as a delivery mechanism for various kinds of pharmaceuticals. Taylor had worked in private industry before returning to grad school, but Tamaddoni had not. They said UTRF’s guidance would be invaluable for would-be entrepreneurs with no business experience.
“UTRF has been great for us from the beginning,” Tamaddoni said. “The team are great friends of us now, we have a good relationship with them.”
That relationship takes multiple forms. T&T licenses two technologies for its work from UT via UTRF, and UTRF is also an investor in a second business they’re launching to produce a new piece of medical equipment, a plastic clip to signal if an open port on an intravenous line has been tampered with. (Some hospital patients have taken advantage of those ports to inject narcotics.)
“It’s a side company owned 10 percent by UTRF and 90 percent by T&T,” Tamaddoni said. “And of course there are licensing fees that the royalty goes to UTRF.”
Krishnamurthy said that kind of direct investment is another function of UTRF. The organization solicits proposals from researchers across the UT system for funding of “maturation projects” — start-ups that need a little seed capital to launch. UTRF will invest up to $15,000 in a company, dispensing a total of about $120,000 a year.
“I think UTRF plays a really important role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem around here,” said Tom Rogers, president and CEO of the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm. The research park itself falls under UTRF’s umbrella, and its recently launched Spark Innovation Center offers space for early-stage start-ups finding their feet.
“I think they’ve had a big but quiet impact,” Rogers said of UTRF. “There are universities that try to squeeze every penny out of every deal, and UTRF doesn’t do that. They’re more committed to the longer-term success.”
Krishnamurthy said that ultimately what the organization wants to do is return benefit to the people of Tennessee, who collectively underwrite the work of the university.
“I very strongly believe that this is research that is done at the university with state dollars and federal dollars, and it should be for societal benefit,” she said.