Bob Miller quietly began his post as Case Western Reserve University‘s top technology transfer official last October, but he’s likely to be much more vocal in seeking out corporate partnerships to help commercialize research coming out of the university.
Miller, a professor in Case’s department of neuroscience, succeeded Case’s former tech transfer chief Mark Coticchia in his new role. Coticchia left Case early last year to start his own venture development consulting firm.
Miller’s new title is vice president of research and technology management.
“Think of me as the Coticchia replacement, but you should think of me as the Coticchia replacement with my own agenda,” Miller said before characterizing the two agendas as overlapping by about 75 percent.
Given, his background as a researcher contrasted with Coticchia’s business background, it’s no surprise that Miller would have slightly different plans for the tech transfer office. The big difference between the two approaches is that Miller plans to take a much more prominent role in coordinating and enhancing research collaborations across Case’s disparate schools — such as medicine and engineering, for example.
“I stretch Mark’s job back into the research component, where Mark largely let that run itself,” Miller said.
At the top of Miller’s priority list is boosting research and commercialization partnerships with corporations. Not only are such partnerships essential to getting Case’s inventions out into the market, but the partnerships can provide some much-needed funding to a university’s research operations.
Due in part to pressure on the federal budget, federal research and development funding for science and technology as a percentage of gross domestic product has been declining throughout the 21st century, according to the Association for the Advancement of Science.
“One of my strategic goals in the coming years is to make Case a very attractive place for our partners to work with,” Miller said. “We have not historically had that reputation.”
Asked to elaborate, Miller said: “We have been perceived as a little rigid in our policies, and a little bit rigid in our expectations in terms of engagement with corporate partners and the value of our [intellectual property].”
When it comes to medical technology, Case’s strengths include biomedical engineering, imaging and neurotechnology.
One corporate partnership Miller may look to emulate is a $38.4 million partnership between healthcare imaging giant Philips Healthcare, Case and University Hospitals Case Medical Center. The collaboration, announced in 2010, called for the establishment of an advanced imaging center to design, develop and test imaging technology.
Though not a corporate partnership, also of note is Case’s $20 million endowment funded by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, which is aimed at translating biomedical research into commercial products and clinical practices.
To put Case’s technology transfer program in a national context, its 2010 licensing income ($14.3 million) put it a little outside the top 20 university programs in the nation. (The University of South Florida finished at No. 20 with $17 million in licensing income.)
Case’s licensing income dropped 49 percent to 7.3 million in 2011 due to patent expiration, Miller said.
Miller wouldn’t put a specific number on where he’d like to see licensing income. “I always have a target. It’s more,” he joked, but said it’s not necessarily important to focus on licensing dollars. Before licensing dollars can come, Case researchers and faculty need to make new discoveries and inventions, meaning invention disclosures (181 in 2011, down 16 percent) are a key metric for the program.
“We want more disclosures and that requires us to communicate more effectively with faculty,” Miller said. “Not all of them recognize the value of commercializing their innovations. We need to do a better job of convincing and showing faculty the benefit of that.”
And a final note to potential corporate partners out there: “One of the things I’m trying to do is get the message out that we’re taking a much more flexible approach to business partnerships. I hear people say we’re too difficult to work with, we’re not willing to negotiate.” Miller said. “I’ll negotiate and I’ll get it done fast.”