A new partnership between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a group that helps turn inventions into businesses is expected to raise the research profile of UNO and the affiliated Peter Kiewit Institute.
Called the UNO Innovation Accelerator, the effort will help students, faculty and staff who don't have business experience to connect to entrepreneurial education, training and funding.
“Universities around the country face this — how do you get an innovation from the lab bench into the marketplace?” said Scott Snyder, associate vice chancellor for research.
“This is a hard thing to get ramped up,” agreed Anne York, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the Creighton University College of Business. She said Omaha doesn't yet have the “ecosystem” for high-tech entrepreneurship she saw as a doctoral student and instructor at the University of North Carolina.
But the UNO Innovation Accelerator is just one of several recent advances happening at both the universities that have them challenging old views about their entrepreneurship capabilities. Each in the last few years has turned up the dial on innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for students. Faculty, too, are expected to benefit through growing networks and access to capital. And the end result could be more businesses founded in Omaha and more investors' dollars flowing into the city.
» UNO's IT Innovation degree, now in its third full year, is one of three degrees offered in UNO's School of Interdisciplinary Informatics, founded in 2010 to educate and innovate around information technology in health care, business, cybersecurity, government and other disciplines. At the school's last count, there were 181 students specializing or majoring in interdisciplinary informatics.
“I love the amount of freedom it gives you and the chance to build something with your hands,” said current IT Innovation student Jon Burlingham, who with classmate Taylor Korensky has founded Activate Innovation, under which they've developed an app that scans bar codes to find allergens in packaged food products. “Not bad for two 19-year-old college kids,” Burlingham said.
» In 2011 UNO was reclassified as a Doctoral/Research University by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. While not as exclusive as a top Research University ranking held by schools like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the change reflects UNO's growing number of doctoral degrees and increased research output, Snyder said.
» Creighton University in April hired patent attorney Lee Taylor as director of intellectual resource management and technology transfer. The Omaha native is the school's third tech transfer leader and the first who is a patent attorney. He has aggressive plans for increasing the number of Creighton inventions that are patented and licensed and for reducing the time it takes to license an invention.
Just Friday, he announced that Streck, the La Vista manufacturer of clinical laboratory products, has licensed a technology developed by Creighton microbiology professor Nancy Hanson.
Taylor also plans to create a tri-annual technology showcase event to introduce companies to the types of patents Creighton has available for licensing. And he wants to establish a Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Patent Law Clinic providing classes in how to start a company and protect intellectual property to students, entrepreneurs, retirees and the unemployed.
“The goal is to unlock the value of Creighton's innovative health science research into products and services that benefit patients, society and the environment, while also helping to create jobs in the local community,” Taylor said.
» Creighton is joining iBridge and Collective IP, two online tech-transfer networks where the university can get its research in front of companies that might want to license it. The University of Nebraska system is already a member of iBridge, which has been housed in Omaha since February.
Each school is focusing on what it does best, with Creighton's strength in bioscience and UNO's strengths in IT and engineering, said York and Dusty Reynolds, director of entrepreneurship and innovation for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Reynolds said the city and its undergraduate institutions are “very much at the beginning of it” when it comes to working with students to encourage high-tech entrepreneurship and let them know they can start their own companies.
“Now we're saying, you don't necessarily need to go to work for a large company,” he said.
Creighton is graduating its first students with majors and minors in bioscience entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, and is in its fifth year of offering undergraduate and graduate certificates in bioscience entrepreneurship. a program developed by York.
Students in law, business, science and the arts work together in interdisciplinary teams to commercialize technologies.
On April 26, students held their fifth annual Bioventure competition. As the sun set on the Mastercraft building in a gritty industrial section of north downtown, students in business suits faced off in two teams, men versus women. Each team made a pitch seeking an investment in a business that makes a high-tech microscope, and an audience of Creighton supporters voted — with cash. Each vote was worth $100, and the students got to keep the money on top of the bragging rights.
One graduate of the program who came back to watch was Debashish Ghosh, owner of Stereo West Autotoys. He said the skills he learned in the certificate program, which he was part of as an MBA student at Creighton, were invaluable when he was buying his business and evaluating the financial information shared by the previous owner.
He also learned the value of collaboration. “You can have the best idea in the world, but you need partners.”
At UNO's Information Accelerator, the university's research work and student entrepreneurs are connected with the accelerator's national network of investors, government funding and business leaders.
“This partnership enables unprecedented access to a nationwide entrepreneurial network to turn innovative ideas into game-changing enterprises,” said Mike McGinnis, executive director of the Peter Kiewit Institute. The institute is a combination of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's information science and technology department and seven of UNL's engineering disciplines.
There is more research and innovation happening at UNO than people realize, vice chancellor Snyder said, mentioning a group of math professors who have created large virtual cells that can be used by scientists to study biochemical processes in real time through computer modeling.
Another UNO researcher raising the school's profile is Doug Derrick, who has an MBA along with his Ph.D. in management information systems. He has captured students' imagination with his work creating an avatar that can interview travelers and immigrants at border crossings, detecting possible lies better than human border agents can.
Derrick had options for teaching positions at bigger research institutions but was enticed to UNO by the opportunity to lead the IT Innovation degree program.
Reynolds said Derrick has been a “catalyst and a driving force” for UNO and PKI.
“I'm really bullish on him,” Reynolds said. “He's a classic example of what every professor, in my opinion, needs to be like” — not only researching and inventing, but also figuring out how to commercialize his work.
In his class one recent day, Derrick Skyped in a guest speaker who had started his own mobile commerce firm.
“He's been in your seats and started his own company,” Derrick told the class.
Later, with the entrepreneur watching, the students pitched their own products — the Your Happy Plate bar code-scanning app, plus an educational video game, a tracking system for a cattle breeding process and a language learning network that connects people who speak a language with others who want to learn it.
Historically, Snyder said, the Omaha university has not been as successful as it would like to be at commercializing faculty and student projects. UNO doesn't have its own “tech transfer” office like traditional research schools do. And PKI, looking to grow enrollment and meet local workforce needs, wants to transition into a research institution so it can attract more top students and faculty.
“From the beginning, it was our goal to provide the infrastructure necessary to turn research, and the resulting entrepreneurial ideas, into emerging businesses and jobs,” said Walter Scott Jr., a member of PKI's board of advisers and chairman of the Scott Technology Center.
The technology center houses the national Innovation Accelerator. Since its inception in 2008, the firm has leveraged $5 million of federally supported research work into $200 million of private investment and acquisitions in startups.
Its executive director, Traci Hancock, will lead the accelerator's new partnership with UNO, spending time on campus and looking for ways to make connections with her network of investors, government grants and business leaders.
Hancock said the accelerator has built up a “large and vibrant” national network, but in Omaha, its leaders wondered, “How can we impact the community?”
She'll provide access to the Kauffman Foundation's FastTrac program, which helps aspiring entrepreneurs and allows college students to earn credit for completing its courses.
Now that she's been meeting people on the main Dodge Street campus, Hancock said, she's been impressed with what she's found. “It's important to change that perception of what's here.”
Her salary still will be paid by Innovation Accelerator in the first year, but in time, UNO hopes she can move into an “entrepreneur in residence” role like the ones funded on other NU system campuses by University Technology Development Corp.
Legal work for now will still be handled by UNO's partnerships with UNMC's UneMed and UNL's NuTech Ventures, but Snyder hopes to eventually have enough volume coming out of UNO for the school to warrant its own tech transfer office.
Research is not some ivory-tower pastime, he said.
“It has application for people's everyday lives,” he said. His goal: “People will start to look at us and say, hey, they really are doing some amazing, practical work at UNO.”
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