University of Florida makes "earth-shaking difference" by licensing tech transfer opportunities to small startups

In an industry where innovation is everything, David Day is leading the University of Florida in a new direction. After years of courting well-established corporate giants to commercialize its technologies, Day, director of UF’s Office of Technology Licensing, convinced Florida’s top research university to take a chance on small upstarts.

Devan Stuart
The Business Journal of Jacksonville

The risk initially unnerved a few higher-ups at the university, but thus far, Day’s business-savvy approach is making an "earth-shaking difference," said UF scientist Richard Melker. He saw six of his technologies licensed within 18 months of Day’s April 2001 arrival. Before, Melker typically landed one license every two years.

The difference, Melker and others say, is Day’s ability to marry business with science. Universities often hire attorneys or scientists instead of business types.

The office’s mission is to help university researchers and scientists take their technologies to the marketplace. Once a company borne of university research turns profits, it pays the university royalties.

"David understands that for a product to be successful, it’s got to be a good deal for everybody," Melker said.

Waiting and watching

Day, who considers himself a "mission-driven person," likens his career move to a Phil Collins song.

"I’ve been waiting for this moment all of my life," he said, quoting a line from "In the Air Tonight," Collins’ 1984 Top 20 hit. Perhaps not all his life, but for a good decade anyway. "I set my sights on this job 10 years ago," Day said. "I waited and watched."

Day’s chance came when Winfred "Win" Phillips, UF’s vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, tripled the Technology Licensing Office’s staff from five to 17.

"The research at the University of Florida had grown to be competitive with the rest of the world, and we weren’t seizing the opportunity," said Phillips, whom Day credits with kicking off the office’s new direction.

Day honed his technology transfer skills at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where he helped launch seven to 10 companies a year based on technologies ranging from computer software imaging to brain cancer treatment. His experience includes 11 years in strategic planning for Fortune 500 companies and running a nursing home management company.

Day spotted UF’s job posting in mid-2000. "I was going to compete with everything I had," said Day, who once confided his doubts to Melker.

"He said, ‘They’ll never hire me. I’m too risky,’ " Melker said. "Win just sucked it up, took all the risk."

Starting anew

Once settled in his office at Walker Hall, Day began to formulate his new startup-friendly strategy, which initially met with skepticism.

"This university is used to making money," Day said. "But licensing to a startup rather than a large corporation necessitates helping those companies land the investments they need to ensure the technologies’ success."

A new medication is "not going to cure anybody unless somebody’s making money," Day said. "Each day you don’t get new pharmaceutical to the marketplace you lose $1 million in sales."

His strategy involves attracting venture capitalists and top-tier managers and researchers, as well as lawyers, accountants and others with entrepreneurial expertise, to North Florida. Several aspects of that strategy are beginning to take root — most notably the arrival of three venture capital companies: North Carolina-based Eno River Capital, Inflexion Fund and Academy Funds.

"David is exactly what we needed down there," said Mike Israel, vice president of operations for Jacksonville’s ATS Professional Services. "He’s created a new energy, a new buzz."

ATS conducted executive searches for several Gainesville startups founded on UF research. Day has a tough job ahead, Israel said, noting one company for which ATS placed executives, Marcon Global Systems, closed shop recently.

Israel notes the drying up of venture capital during the economic recession and competition from better-known technology markets, including Atlanta. Biotechnology may prove North Florida’s saving grace.

"Biotech is still hot," Israel said. His company is working with Gainesville startups more frequently since Day’s arrival, and Israel expects business will jump in 2004, when more companies are in second-round funding and clinical trials.

Day also is using his network of university and business contacts to attract high-level personnel experienced in bigger research communities, such as San Francisco and Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle Park.

"Race horse owners will tell you they’d rather have a B-grade horse and an A-grade jockey," Day said. "We want entrepreneurs who have been there."

State officials also are buying into the plan. Gov. Jeb Bush last year announced a $30 million bill to create several Centers of Excellence to review and develop Florida’s most promising technologies. However, New York’s $420 million initiative, announced the same day, dwarfs Florida’s fund.

"We need the state to play," Day said, noting the fund is a welcome start. "But whether it does or not, we’re going to charge ahead." State officials plan to award Centers of Excellence funds in April, pending approval by the State Board of Education, said David Bishop, spokesman for the governor’s office.

Day also is working with other universities to help develop "multi-institutional killer deals," he said, noting a recent meeting of 29 university technology licensing offices throughout the Southeast. "We’re all willing to take a smaller piece of a pie that has a greater chance of getting funded."

Making peace

Prior to Day’s arrival, UF’s Office of Technology Licensing had a less-than-stellar reputation among the university’s researchers and scientists.

"Universities in general are not well known for business savvy," Day said, noting UF’s tech licensing office had long been understaffed, underfunded and lacking in customer service skills.

Just ask Melker, an outspoken type who calls Day the "first guy who knows what he’s doing here."

Commercializing university technologies is one-third business, one-third science and one-third law, Day said. "And there are no two deals that look alike."

It’s that approach that took a load off Melker’s shoulders.

"I used to hire MBA students, in the old days, to oversee our technologies to make sure they weren’t falling by the wayside," he said. "I spent a whole lot of time worrying and wondering."

Today, he’s confident the business end is getting as much attention as the science and law aspects.

"There’s a lot of technology in Florida, and we’re open for business," Day said. "We’re damn good and we’ll get our share. I promise you that."

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