West Virginia University researchers are consistently coming up with innovations and potential new products to put on the market, a process the university encourages for the economic development of the entire state.
Erienne Olesh, executive director of student and faculty innovation at WVU, said one of the largest ways the university impacts the state’s technology sector is through Tech Transfer, an office that helps take research projects and translates them into commercial products, as long as the research results in some new type of innovation.
“They work with researchers, faculty members and our doctors at the hospital, and anytime anybody has a new discovery or invention or they think that, through their research, they’ve stumbled upon something new or creative or that can be turned into a potential product, the Technology Transfer office will work with that individual and do an initial assessment of the technology and then work through the process of patent protection,” Olesh said. “Then, they work the license that technology.”
For example, for an innovation in medical technology, Olesh said the Technology Transfer office will look at what medical companies align with that potential product and then work with those companies to try to license it or further develop the technology through sponsored research.
She added that the more researchers are able to take advantage of the Technology Transfer system, the more money it brings into West Virginia as a whole, and economic gains for the state are always a win for everyone involved.
“The important part of this is that WVU alone brings in $250 million in research expenditures every year,” Olesh said. “We want to see those dollars go towards the best use. If the university and a researcher or innovator can help create a product that licenses or forms into a startup company, it can bring economic revenue back to the state. …
“With Technology Transfer offices, you put a lot of money in and take a lot of risks, but at some point, the hope is that there will be a big return.”
Olesh said another big upside to having a system like this in place in West Virginia is to demonstrate that such a high level of research, innovation and entrepreneurship in a rural state is indeed possible.
“For many, many years, entrepreneurship and innovation have more been linked to the coastal states and areas, but I think we’ve been seeing so much of a groundswell, especially in the last few years, of those types of activities happening in West Virginia,” Olesh said. “I think it’s important for WVU to also partake and lead in those efforts.”
Two success stories of the Tech Transfer office are Iconic Air and Endolumik, both of which started as research projects that have now become successful startups in the carbon emissions and medical fields, respectively.
“They are really great examples of what is possible and what can come out of West Virginia,” Olesh said. “They (have) incredible stories.”
Olesh said one of the reasons West Virginia has struggled in the past is the lack of a “deep entrepreneurial bench.” She explained that larger technology hubs like Silicon Valley have built a deep bench of experienced entrepreneurs that can coach and mentor future generations and work on big projects.
However, she believes West Virginia is making the right moves to improve that obstacle.
“We’re making movement in the right direction, but that’s definitely been a hurdle we’ve had to overcome,” Olesh said. “We also hear from folks all the time, especially our younger startup companies trying to get their feet underneath them, is being in a more rural area. Rural areas typically see lower levels of private investment, whether it’s from angel investors, seed investors or venture capital. …
“One thing that I’m really focused on, is SBIR and STTR, which is the federal feed grant fund. That’s a geographic equalizer. Those grants are open to anyone to apply. They are competitive, but it’s not like venture funding.”
Olesh said there are several startups currently in the funding stage at WVU that are doing very well and moving in the right direction.
She said that despite the obstacles, she believes that West Virginia University and the state as a whole have never been more primed to take advantage of the funding that’s out there to propel innovation forward, and she’s excited to see what the university’s researchers develop next.
“What we are seeing right now, especially out of the National Science Foundation, is a very large push to build up innovation and entrepreneurship resources in more rural states and regions,” Olesh said. “There has been a tremendous amount of federal funding driven that way, specifically designed for universities that have high rates of innovation and research but low rates of startup activity and commercialization. …
“We’re very excited right now as we see that funding continue to come out. We feel like it’s the federal government really understanding some of the challenges we have faced and trying to help direct funding to fix those challenges. We’re in a great moment right now to capitalize on federal funding and really help continue to ignite the momentum that’s already started in West Virginia.”