When Rowan University's new vice president for health sciences meets with potential industry partners, he starts off with a disclaimer.
“I say, 'I know you're wondering why you're here talking to me, because you've had bad experiences with academia before,' ” said Kenneth Blank. “My assurance to them is that we know that you've had troubles before, and you will not experience that with us.”
Rowan has significant growth potential when it comes to partnerships with industry and government agencies — another way of saying such partnerships haven't historically been a strength at the 90-year-old institution.
Anthony Lowman, who followed Blank to Rowan to become the dean of the College of Engineering, said Rowan's late start actually gives it an advantage over other schools trying to adapt outdated partnership models to the new economy.
“They're all talking about it,” he said, “but they all have big infrastructures. They all have the old ways of doing things, and layers and layers and layers that can prevent it from happening. We get to build from scratch.”
It's a good time to do just that. Last year, Rowan opened Cooper Medical School, in Camden, and as of July 1, the school will absorb the School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Stratford, as part of the state's higher education restructuring; it also gets its designation as a research institution on that date. Once the merger is complete, the school will be at about $24 million of sponsored research at Rowan's four campuses, said Shreekanth Mandayam, associate provost for research, and executive director of the school's South Jersey Technology Park, in the Mullica Hill section of Harrison.
The goal is to get that number up to $100 million within a decade.
“We'll do it faster than that,” Blank said.
Blank's confidence comes from experience. He helped Drexel University, in Philadelphia, to jump from $15 million in sponsored research to $100 million in seven years. There, he worked alongside Ali Houshmand, now president of Rowan; Houshmand recruited Blank and Lowman.
Traditionally, Blank said, researchers decide what they want to research, apply for grants and, if they get funding, move forward. Blank wants to redirect some of that scientific energy away from open-ended study and toward solving specific problems.
“We're going to be focusing on our innovations on things that are actually needed,” he said.
That means meeting with businesses and government agencies to determine their needs, and in Rowan's case, hiring a pair of business development firms to drum up potential partnership leads.
Maxine Ballen, president of the New Jersey Technology Council, said tech firms want to work with academia, but only if the universities have the people in place to meet the industry's needs for flexibility and timeliness.
“Specifically, I mean hiring faculty that have worked in industry,” she said.
Blank said the school also is training its existing faculty to understand how to get their innovations out of the lab and into real-world applications.
The engineering school already holds regular clinics, in which 80 to 90 percent of the projects are funded by industry, Mandayam said. The 16 research labs at the tech park generate $3.5 million to $4 million each year.
But Lowman said the university also wants to do a better job of protecting the inventions that emerge from its labs and those of the tech park. He recently invited an attorney friend, Joe Mannear, to meet with faculty to find out what they're working on, and what of that research might qualify as inventions. The meeting yielded some two dozen invention disclosures that eventually could lead to patents.
Mannear said some professors are market savvy, but “others are academically focused, and really don't think about the commercialization potential. They just want to get it out into a publication, and let their peers and the rest of the world know about it.”
Publication in scientific journals can create problems. While published articles puff up a professor's curriculum vitae, they also create patent problems, since “you have a year to file a patent application on your technology after your first public disclosure,” Mannear said.
Mannear said he tries to tell researchers to get him involved earlier in the process, so there's no risk of losing the ability to patent their inventions. Those patents can prove highly lucrative to business and the university; without them, many would-be industry partners will simply walk away.
Rowan's new approach could bring multiple benefits. Besides research dollars and licensing revenue, the school and its tech park are also helping faculty spin out companies, and also are housing “spin-ins” — companies that started outside the university, but which choose to locate at the tech park to take advantage of the mentorship and research assistance opportunities.
The tech park is filled to capacity with seven resident businesses and eight “virtual tenants” that pay a monthly fee to take advantage of the business assistance offerings.
There's plenty of room for growth. The tech park sits on 700 acres of university land, which the school hopes someday becomes a tech-centered “west campus.”
“We want to be the economic driver — we will be the economic driver — in southern New Jersey,” Blank said, “but also all over New Jersey.”
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