News Column

UC Santa Cruz Turning Inventions Into Businesses

May 16, 2011

Tovin Lapan, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.

When UC Santa Cruz School of Engineering Dean Art Ramirez came to the university two years ago from Bell Labs, he was immediately impressed with the amount and quality of inventions and new ideas coming from the department.

He did, however, see room for growth in the rate in which those innovative ideas are turned into actual products and services.

"A lot of faculty have strong relationships with firms in the valley, and it's not too much of a surprise that UCSC is fertile ground in terms of the amount of relevant ideas," Ramirez said. "We capture a lot of them already, but we wanted an effort to make it more a part of our culture to make the most of these inventions."

Ramirez reached out to alumni for suggestions, and former UCSC computer and information sciences student Dan Heller, who launched his own startup company in 1990, answered the call.

Heller developed and founded the Center for Entrepreneurship, a multidisciplinary effort to give students training in what it takes to bring an idea to market and start a company.

"What's new and innovative about this program is that it is a cohesive model," Heller said. "Faculty elsewhere have to publicize their inventions and research themselves. With the center, we will be seeking out intellectual property from UCSC to use."

Even though the genesis of the center came from the engineering department, the program is for students from all disciplines.

The process begins by identifying valuable intellectual property from the university, generated by students, faculty or both. Students then use the product idea as a focus for their academic work, exploring marketing, potential customers, feasibility and costs.

"Teaching entrepreneurship is sort of like teaching art," Heller said. "It's an imprecise form."

Some of those projects will be on display at UCSC's May 20 business design competition. First prize is $10,000 to use as capital investment in the corporation. The competition features a variety of inventions, including an online music sharing service that uses recommender algorithms -- what sites such as Netflix and Pandora use to tailor suggestions -- developed by a UCSC faculty member, an online exam grading product and "Stallion," makeup for men.

The city of Santa Cruz has joined the endeavor, contributing some grant money to the Startup Lab, a nonprofit unaffiliated with UCSC that Heller established to support the realization of the best business plans.

In a report prepared for the city, Heller pointed out that roughly 30,000 Santa Cruz County residents commute to Silicon Valley for work, "sapping the community of economic and social capital."

"One of the biggest resource the city has is intellectual capital that resides up on campus," Santa Cruz City Councilman David Terrazas said. "The center will provide the link between those ideas and economic development and stimulus."

Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty echoed Terrazas' thoughts, calling the project "another great example of partnership between the city and university."

There should not be any shortage of ideas coming from campus. UCSC ranks fourth among all Association of American Universities members in research impact, which reflects the number of research papers that cite other researchers, according to a Thomson-Reuters report.

According to a National Science Foundation survey of research and development expenditures at universities and colleges, UCSC ranks ninth for federal research dollars granted per faculty member, receiving $150 million last year.

"We don't want to just do research for curiosity's sake," Ramirez said. "We want to do research to solve real life problems."



Source: Copyright (c) 2011, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.


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