Florida universities play matchmaker for tech startups

Technology transfer officials will lead a panel at Economic Development Summit

cschelle@bradenton.comMay 2, 2013 

MANATEE -- Some of the newest technology innovations are being created at Florida universities, and they are ready for businesses to latch onto and commercialize.

Gatorade, which was developed at the University of Florida, is one of the most famous university inventions, but the process of matching university inventors with businesses has changed quite a bit since Dr. Robert Cade and the university battled over patents and royalties in the 1960s.

Staff from UF, University of Central Florida and University of South Florida who specialize in cultivating key relationships between the inventors and entrepreneurs will speak Friday at a panel on university-developed technology at the Spark Growth Economic Development Summit. The summit starts at 9 a.m. at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.

Chris Morton is one of those serial entrepreneurs who took advantage of university-developed inventions and will be one of the panelists Friday. Morton's company, Nanophotonica, harnessed a special liquid developed at UF for manufacturing TV and mobile phone screens that provide

a better high definition picture and better visibility in sunlight. He's talking to major manufacturers in Asia to help produce the screens and flexible solar panels for consumers.

That couldn't have been possible without the technology labs and the people behind the science at Florida universities.

"One of the really big things in Florida is the considerable amount of great technologists from universities," he said.

The University of Florida opened a 45,000-square-foot Innovation Hub in 2011 funded by an $8.2 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, where tech start-ups lease lab or furnished office space to do their work. Leasing the space allows them to use university resources and pull in students nearby.

Over the past 12 years, the University of Florida, long known to foster start-ups, has created 140 companies that file for patents and sell the inventions.

Universities and tech businesses call this process "technology transfer," which is a way to pass on technology manufacturing and knowledge from government and university organizations to companies that can take a certain technology to develop it for a wider commercial interest.

Morton is in the midst of securing that commercial interest for his business to put the screens in the hands of consumers. A competing technology called OLED features a 4-mm thin screen that offers a flexible, curved surface. OLED TVs made the rounds in tech news this past week, with LG announcing a 55-inch curved OLED TV for $13,500 in South Korea.

But not everyone can afford a $13,500 television. Morton hopes to bring down the price using his technology because he contends his process is less expensive to manufacture and the materials last longer.

USF has its own Technology Transfer Office headed by Valerie Landrio McDevitt, assistant vice president of patents and licensing at USF, to match up entrepreneurs with inventors. The office ranks in the top 300 in the world for U.S.-granted patents, and granted 98 patents in fiscal 2012, according to the university.

McDevitt, a U.S. registered patent attorney, said she will travel the globe with her team to spread the word about the university's technology and patents in order to find the right investor.

"This is a contact sport," McDevitt said, noting the keen competitive environment of the tech incubator world. But those investors and companies are also in Florida.

"Last year we did 10 start-up companies that were all Florida-based companies," she said. The Technology Transfer Office covers all of USF's system, so students and staff at USF Sarasota-Manatee can also be entrepreneurs and inventors and have their ideas protected with the help of the university, she said.

When the technology is ready to be commercialized, McDevitt plays matchmaker.

"What we would be looking for in places like Manatee are any existing companies that are Florida-based companies that might be a fit for one of our companies," she said.

In Morton's case, he toured the developing technologies thanks to UF's Office of Technology Licensing, and once he found the liquid being developed, he knew the potential and started his Orlando-based company to make long-lasting display screens for electronics.

Morton says several pieces must come together for a successful tech start-up, including old-fashioned networking, plus finding the right team and staff, having a great idea, investors and a solid business plan.

"The point of the panel is that there is enough money and enough of a support network for people to start companies," he said.

When looking for the right people, don't count out the retirees, McDevitt said. The retirees could make excellent board members or could be ready for a second career after leaving their previous workplace, she added.

Morton assured that success never comes easy, no matter how many resources and support are available to make building a business easier.

He encourages entrepreneurs to pick the brains of people who have succeeded as well as those who have failed.

"Most people who have success have failed and that's OK," he said. "You learn a lot and do it differently next time."

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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