Emerging Technology Hubs: HBCUs move to commercialize research

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More than 25 years after passage of the historic, albeit obscure, legislation known as the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are finally forming alliances that may establish them collectively as the birthplace of the next Silicon Valley. Thanks in large part to Bayh-Dole, HBCUs are rapidly becoming hubs for research and development.

Sponsored by Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the legislation provides for inventions or products that result from research funded by the federal government to be transferred to universities and businesses for further development and commercialization. The contracting universities and businesses are permitted to exclusively license the inventions to other entities.

Surprisingly, only a smattering of major universities to date has reaped the lucrative benefits of research commercialization, placing them at the epicenter of known technology hubs. For example, research at Stanford and San Jose State universities in California contributed to the formation of Silicon Valley. The same can be said about the flourishing computer and IT market in Texas, developed in large part as a result of research at the University of Texas at Austin.

Leading the Charge
Among HBCUs, NCA&T in Greensboro, N.C., is leading the charge to take advantage of Bayh-Dole. In March, the prestigious school launched its first spin-off company based solely on research that was conducted at the university’s School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. The company, Provagen, is a biotechnology firm that produces and markets a protein called Protein V, a molecular compound that can be used in the treatment of diseases and in medical research.

Alton Thompson, dean of the school of agriculture, says the development and subsequent distribution of the protein, as well as the formation of the company, set a precedent. “Creating commercial ventures out of research is significant because it ensures that our research makes it out of the laboratory and into the marketplace,” he says.

Nettie Rowland, NCA&T’s director of media relations, says Protein V is medically important because it forms chemical bonds with antibodies and makes it possible to extract them from blood serum. The antibodies then can be used to treat and diagnose disease. Nearly all of the research and experiments that led to the development of Protein V were conducted on the NCA&T campus, Rowland says. The new company, Provagen, is now in the process of hiring a CEO and plans to establish a home office in Greensboro.

Walter Massey, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, says a natural link exists among schools of business, engineering and the arts and sciences. He lauds the accomplishment of NCA&T, saying it paves the way for other HBCUs with their own inventions and products to make a similar move. “The development of multidisciplinary centers will provide opportunities to apply innovations in science and technology to the commercial marketplace. HBCUs are finally reaping some of the same benefits,” Massey says.

Other HBCUs already have taken steps in that direction. Florida A&M University, for example, a few years ago established an Office of Technology Transfer, Licensing and Commercial-ization to, among other things, ensure that the university maintains exclusive licenses to inventions created at the school.

Cohesive Effort
For some educators, cohesive action by HBCUs is the most pragmatic way for those institutions to mirror the Silicon Valley success of Stanford and San Jose State. Eric Sheppard, dean of the School of Engineering and Technology at Hampton University in Virginia, contends that a coming together of the 10 or so HBCUs with accredited engineering programs would be a formidable alliance.