When Larry Plotkin took a buy-out package from Hewlett-Packard in 2005, he aimed to start a new business in the mid-Willamette Valley. He was familiar with OSU research on transparent transistors, algae-generated biodiesel and microbial fuel cells. “This is world-class stuff,” he says. And he felt that the potential for new products based on OSU research was “so underappreciated.” It was time, he thought, to spin research into gold, to create companies that provide jobs and a sustainable future.
As a volunteer with the nonprofit Business Enterprise Center in Corvallis, Plotkin had helped startup companies get their feet on the ground. And he knew that OSU’s Office of Technology Transfer works with scientists and engineers to commercialize their research results. So he contacted then-director Craig Sheward, who arranged for Plotkin to meet Les Fuchigami, an emeritus professor of horticulture and an expert in plant stress physiology. With OSU electrical engineer Tom Plant and graduate students in horticulture and engineering, Fuchigami had worked for nearly 10 years to develop a new way to monitor growing crops with speed and precision. Better information about plant stress could help farmers, as well as orchard and nursery managers, improve crop quality and save money.
Today, Plotkin and Fuchigami are chief executive officer and chief technology officer respectively of Precision Plant Systems Inc., along with Dave Persohn, chief financial officer, and Ping Hai Ding, chief scientist. They founded the Corvallis company to develop a hand-held device based on the OSU team’s work. Called the Ping Meter, it uses near-infrared light to monitor nitrogen and chlorophyll in leaves.
Combined with the meter’s GPS-based mapping capability and plant species databases, these indicators can empower growers in managing their crops, says Plotkin.
Ping Meter? The name plays on the idea that radar, sonar and other monitoring methods “ping” objects and return an echo that can be displayed and analyzed.
And it honors work by OSU graduate Ding whose statistical analyses of near-infrared light experiments played an important part in making the meter possible. With a Patent Cooperation Treaty application in hand, OSU is completing a licensing agreement with the company.
Terra Up Close
Innovations to Market
New products stem from OSU research. Read more about some examples in the pipeline and on the shelf.
Seedbed for Growth
If final patent protection is granted, the science and engineering behind the Ping Meter will add to the 181 OSU innovations that have been patented since 1980 in agriculture, wood science, engineering, chemistry, microbiology and veterinary medicine. Some have reached the marketplace, and others require additional research. But as a group, they represent a seedbed of potential products, a growing resource for established corporations and startup entrepreneurs like Plotkin. And new opportunities are emerging. Last fall, they included an environmentally friendly polymer invented by undergraduates working with chemical engineer David Hackleman and a disease-resistant Port Orford Cedar rootstock developed by plant pathologist Everett Hansen (under development by Monrovia, the world’s largest wholesale nursery).
Such innovative technologies will drive future economic development, says John Cassady, OSU vice president for research.
Companies are increasingly looking to universities to provide the science behind new products. Moreover, state governments from Georgia to Oregon are pursuing economic development by investing in partnerships that bring top-notch experts together across the academic and corporate landscape.
Oregon has three such initiatives in nanoscience, sustainable technologies and drug discovery. All focus on translational research, the application of lab results to circumstances that are relevant to the marketplace.
“The states are seeing there’s potential to drive their economies through universities,” says Cassady. “You have to be proactive in trying to move through the translational stages to the point where it has an impact on the economy.”
Pressure on states to attract jobs has been growing for decades, notes a recent report by the Pew Center for the States and the National Governors Association, but global competition is raising the stakes: “States must accelerate their efforts or risk becoming economic backwaters. Specifically, they must become places where new ideas are discovered, invented or given their first big break.” (Investing in Innovation, 2007)
To generate more ideas that lead to products like non-toxic wood adhesives, disease-resistant crops and the Ping Meter, Cassady wants to expand collaboration between OSU, other universities and the private sector. He has created a university/ industry partnership committee, which, with the help of pharmaceutical-executive-turned-consultant John MacDonald of Massachusetts, is surveying technology transfer officers and corporate executives about effective partnerships.
“Universities are starting more and more to build these clusters of innovation and be recognized on a global scale,” says MacDonald. “At the same time, industry is seeing the relationship divide in such a way that the early discovery process is going to reside at the university, and the development and commercialization are going to evolve on the company side.”
With a history of partnering through the OSU Extension Service, agricultural experiment stations and other units, land grant universities are in a strong position to foster such partnerships, he adds. “They need to be proactive in their relationships, develop clusters of innovation that are going to solve problems and meet needs, generate the return on investment that industry is looking for. Partnering has to become part of the DNA of OSU.”
More Than Technology
Such relationships depend on discoveries that come to light through confidential “invention disclosures,” a description of an idea or technology. Brian Wall, interim director of OSU’s Office of Technology Transfer, says his office now receives 60 to 70 disclosures annually. Based on market analysis, patent potential and additional research by the inventor, Wall will typically apply for provisional patent protection on half of them.
It can take up to five years and cost $15,000 to $40,000 to secure a decision from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Multiply the numbers, and risk for the patent applicant mounts. For universities that bet on multiple inventions, payback can come through license fees or an equity stake in just one blockbuster technology.
In 2007, OSU received $2.5 million in licensing revenues and $100,000 in a sale of stock in Clear Shape Technologies, a Silicon Valley firm.
Nevertheless, Wall and Cassady stress that institutional finances are not the only, or even the most important, consideration.
For them, graduates are OSU’s most significant contribution to economic development. “Most universities realize that one of the most important things we produce for these companies is talent.
It’s not just about research and development and intellectual property. It’s about students,” says Cassady.
“Students may join companies that aren’t based on OSU technologies,” adds Wall, “but they got their education here. Or they join small companies and build them.
Or they join Intel or HP down the road and build a whole new division.”
So the strategy in the Office of Research is multi-pronged, supporting students with research grants and assisting faculty at each stage of the process. For entrepreneurs like Larry Plotkin, education and technology together represent a mother lode for Oregon’s economic future.