From classrooms to capitalism
It was an unlikely pairing – she was an experienced business executive and he, a cutting-edge academic researcher. But after a year of refining the company’s business model and strategy, she knew they had something special.
Leslie Kimerling, an entrepreneur with years of experience growing early stage companies, met professor Rafael Piestun at a dinner party in 2008. The two talked about Piestun’s work in the electrical and computer engineering department at CU-Boulder on 3D super-resolution imaging and stayed in touch thereafter. In 2011 the two realized they had all the ingredients for a potentially successful startup.
Fast forward a year to the launch of Double Helix, a Boulder-based technology firm. Kimerling said Double Helix recently brought its first official beta product to market and is currently in talks for “strategic partnerships.”
Double Helix is one of a small but growing number of startups that have sprung out of the intersection of entrepreneurship and academic research. This can be traced back to the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 – federal legislation intended to spur economic development by allowing government-funded entities, like universities, to license research and new technologies to the private sector.
Kate Tallman is the interim associate vice president of the Technology Transfer Office at CU, the office tasked with overseeing this effort. Tallman said the TTO’s 20 staffers track the work of professors and students, keeping their eyes peeled for valuable projects and connections.
She explained the TTO’s staff closely followed Piestun’s work on “super-resolution” techniques and also ensured that the university filed the necessary patents on the technology.
“That’s the basic blocking and tackling that any technology transfer office needs to do,” she said.
But, Tallman noted, the TTO doesn’t directly create companies. For that, she said the program must rely on serendipity.
Kimerling said Double Helix officially launched after CU granted the company an exclusive license on Piestun’s technology. “They are our partners in developing the technology; they want us to succeed,” Kimerling said of CU. Moreover, because of Piestun’s research, “A lot of the technology is already proven. What hasn’t been focused on is how to commercialize it.”
While Piestun continues to work at CU, Kimerling said the professor “leads the company’s technology development efforts.”
Tallman said CU’s Technology Transfer Office typically works to protect around 250 business concepts or technologies annually and works on the formation of roughly 10 startups per year. “That’s a very high number nationally,” she said. “And it’s because we have a growing sense of entrepreneurship in the faculty and an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the community, in the state of Colorado.”
Tallman noted, however, the transfer of technologies from universities to businesses is changing. She points to CU’s relatively new Colorado Power Electronics Center – part of its electrical, computer and energy engineering department – that provides sponsor companies with access to students, faculty and, most importantly, research results.
“The relationship (between businesses and researchers) didn’t start with an invention, it started in an area of expertise,” Tallman said.
“The university wants to get its technology in the marketplace,” Kimerling said. “Not only for revenue, but it’s an important part of the university’s reputation. It should be a win-win.”