Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

University Proof of Concept Centers: Empowering Faculty to Capitalize on Their Research

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

University Proof of Concept Centers: Empowering Faculty to Capitalize on Their Research

Article excerpt

In March 2011, President Barack Obama announced the creation of a Proof of Concept Center (PoCC) program as part of the i6 Green Challenge to promote clean energy innovation and economic growth, an integral piece of his Startup America initiative. Managed through the Economic Development Administration (EDA), the program encouraged the creation of PoCCs aimed at accelerating the development of green technologies to increase the nation's competitiveness and hasten its economic recovery. In September 2011, EDA awarded $12 million to six university-affiliated organizations in response to the Challenge competition; and in 2012, EDA awarded $1 million to each of seven new PoCCs. The 2014 solicitation broadened the i6 Challenge to include awards up to $500,000 for growing existing centers or developing commercialization centers to focus on later-stage research. The program raises an important question: What's a PoCC and how is it different from other efforts to stimulate innovation?

PoCCs are designed to help address the particularly troublesome gap between the invention of a specific technology and its further development into new products or applications. The problem is that in most cases neither the faculty researcher who makes a discovery nor the university itself has the information needed to understand its value to outsiders or the contacts and incentives necessary to develop it. In the jargon of economics, there are informational, motivational, and institutional asymmetries.

Public funding of PoCCs represents a new approach to technology development. Whereas the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs administered through the Small Business Administration provide support to small organizations to develop focused research with a goal of commercialization, PoCCs support university faculty and students who typically lack the networks and experience necessary to understand more fundamental aspects of technology development and entrepreneurship.

Many people became aware of PoCCs only with the current federal initiative, but the first PoCCs were established more than 10 years ago and were part of a broader trend emphasizing the development, transfer, and commercialization of university technologies.

For years, university reputations hinged on the capability of faculty to obtain sponsored grants (typically from the federal government), conduct research, and publish results that contribute to the broader body of knowledge. This process, however, can also yield new inventions or discoveries that may be useful for social or economic purposes beyond fundamental science. Aside from a few universities, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison (technology transfer office founded in 1925) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (technology transfer office founded in 1950), prior to the 1980s, research institutions either ignored these discoveries or did not have the means to explore their value, much less to develop them into promising new technologies or companies.

This environment began to change in the late 1970s as the United States confronted a severe downturn in industrial productivity, accompanied by bankruptcies, layoffs, and plummeting world market shares for U.S. firms. U.S. economists and policymakers concurrently observed the stunning success of the Japanese keiretsu: an industrial alliance through which large manufacturers, suppliers, and public institutions collaboratively developed and produced high-quality products for export. National leaders in the United States consequently sought to improve federal policies relating to industrial performance by scaling back burdensome federal regulations, removing barriers to industrial collaboration and improving the return on investment for federally-funded university research.

First steps

Policymakers were specifically concerned that valuable technologies were either sitting on the shelf within universities or mired in red tape within federal mission agencies. …

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