Researchers from the state’s four research-producing universities gathered recently on Petit Jean Mountain for a one-of-a-kind retreat focused on commercialization, collaboration and networking.
The second annual Arkansas Commercialization Retreat, the brainchild of University of Arkansas entrepreneurship guru Carol Reeves, took place over three days at the UA’s Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.
More than 50 scientists, administrators and other officials attended the conference, representing the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Arkansas State University and the Arkansas Research Alliance.
The gathering was unique because it represented the research components of an entire state — and potential competitors at that — coming together to share ideas. Plus, participants did so on their own time. This cooperation impressed Permjot Valia, an English entrepreneur and global angel investor who invested in Arkansas startups BlueInGreen and Picasolar.
Valia now spends up to a month a year in Arkansas, and he champions the state, its people and the quality of its startups on social media and to anyone he encounters. He’s been to both retreats, and believes they represent something unique.
"I haven’t seen collaboration on this level anywhere," he said. "This is the only place in the world where I’ve seen it."
Reeves originally conceived of the retreat as a chance to bring together faculty and staff from the state’s four research universities and determine how they could work together to commercialize their collective work — everybody pulling on the same rope for the benefit of the entire state.
After all, as associate vice provost for entrepreneurship at the UA, Reeves mentors business plan teams that are based on university research. She wondered how the state could turn that research into high-paying jobs that would not only attract workers but give the state’s science, technology, engineering and math students a reason to stay home. And scientists could always use some help turning their ideas into tangible, profitable businesses, she thought.
This year, Reeves recruited UA Technology Ventures Director and Innovate Arkansas adviser Jeff Amerine, UAMS Microbiology & Immunology Program Director Marie Chow, other school officials and business leaders to lead sessions ranging from university intellectual property procedures to government and private funding. Valia led sessions devoted to idea validation; sales, marketing and buying; and opportunity analysis.
"I think the retreat was very successful at helping faculty understand how the commercialization process and funding work," Reeves said. "More important, I believe the retreat created a lot of energy around taking ideas to market and around thinking about entrepreneurship as a path for STEM graduate students."
Growing the number of STEM students and keeping them here is crucial to the state’s economic future.
"If Arkansas is to move up from the bottom ranks in economic indicators, we will be led by knowledge-based businesses, and our students have shown themselves to be fully capable of starting these," Reeves said. "I think the state should be very proud that we have faculty at our universities who are willing to give up their time to work collaboratively to address some of Arkansas’ economic development challenges."
Ben Wofford, director of business development for the UAMS BioVentures incubator, said the retreat succeeded in linking academia to commercialization.
"Many of the primary inventors of new technologies here at UAMS are unfamiliar with the commercialization process, and this retreat provides a unique opportunity for them to learn about and understand these processes," he said. "Additionally, commercialization is often seen as contrary to pure research, and our retreat helps to bridge the gap in thinking between researchers and commercialization."
Scientific research can’t do any good just sitting on a shelf in a lab.
"Many of the most innovative medical technologies are published in medical journals and periodicals, which is great. However, it isn’t until a commercial company invests in the technology and brings it to market that the public is able to actually benefit from the improvement in medical care," he said.
Amerine thinks the retreat served another purpose as well: to identify new areas for cooperation and strengthen relationships.
"The key take-away for me was mostly that this event was a very fruitful opportunity for some creative collisions between researchers and staff who are engaged in or open to engage in the commercialization process from across the state," he said. "I learned a lot and made some new friends. These sorts of events reinforce the critical connection between education, innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development."
Chow credited the success of the retreat to strong support from the Research Alliance and the technology licensing offices at each of the participating universities, as well as the "active participation and willingness to share experiences by all the attendees at the meeting."
Two retreats are on the books; each was well received and considered a success. The first retreat included about 40 attendees weighted toward school administrators. Reeves said the 55 or so attendees this year included more faculty members. Continued growth may force her to change the way the retreat is planned.
"We didn't have a formal application process; we just asked deans and others who know faculty members who they thought would be interested," she said. “We'll probably have to go to a formal application process in the future."