SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to generating business startups and converting research into commercially viable enterprises, the University of Utah leads the nation, according to the Milken Institute's 2017 rankings of the Best Universities for Technology Transfer.
Between 2012 and 2015, the University of Utah generated more than $210 million in licensing income and seeded 69 new businesses, a production rate the report describes as a "remarkable accomplishment" in light the school's location in a smaller metropolitan area.
After ranking 14th in Milken's inaugural report on technology transfer released in 2006, Utah's largest state research school "quietly evolved into one of the most prestigious research universities in the United States with a strong emphasis on commercializing its research," the report states.
Keith Marmer, the U.'s executive director and associate vice president of Technology & Venture Commercialization, said the university has a long-established culture of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.
"The faculty here have an amazing track record of evaluating an idea and then looking at how to apply it to solve societal issues," Marmer said. "We support and value that, and really, one of the greatest ways of culminating a research project is seeing it applied in a way that has an impact."
The report noted that the university performed very well across the four assessment categories: patents issued, licenses granted, licensing income and startups formed.
The U.'s indexed score of 100 puts the school ahead of Columbia University, University of Florida, BYU and Stanford. It also highlighted U. efforts that helped move the school to its nation-leading status, including its Center for Medical Innovation; Entrepreneurial Faculty Scholars program; Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute; and Center for Engineering Innovation.
Administrators and faculty at BYU were also celebrating their performance in the rankings, placing fourth overall and leading all top-10 finishers in the startups category.
“The work we do in the BYU Tech Transfer Office is a reflection of the faculty at BYU and their fantastic work in innovation,” Mike Alder, director of the office, said in a statement. “This ranking wasn’t expected, but it is a nice validation of the hard work we all do here.”
The University of Utah's partnership with the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative, created by the Utah Legislature and governor in 2006 to bolster the state's economy through technology development, has been pivotal in the process of bringing innovations to market, Marmer said.
"USTAR plays a critical role in providing funds that help further the commercialization cycle," he said. "We'd be struggling mightily to reach our goals without their support."
Executive Director Ivy Estabrooke said USTAR could not be more pleased to hear of the Milken ranking and that the results are further confirmation of the effectiveness of the collaborative work with Utah's research institutions.
“USTAR congratulates the University of Utah on this top ranking in the Milken Report,” Estabrooke said. “USTAR has been pleased to support targeted research at the U. over the past several years which has added to the success of the U. research community."
Marmer said University of Utah faculty members face tremendous challenges in balancing their teaching responsibilities with competing for dwindling grant funding and time-intensive research efforts. But they've become very adept at doing it all, he said.
"Many of our faculty members have a strong desire to engage in entrepreneurial ventures and have found strategies for moving their research along the cutting edge in their respective fields," Marmer said. "We actively support those pursuits, and it really is the secret sauce of why the U. is continually successful in creating new startups, moving research into the marketplace and having the impact that we do."
One U. innovator contributing to those impacts is student Ashley Langell.
Langell put her medical school studies on hold after completing her first three years to work on a master's degree in bioengineering. She also found time to help design and develop a medical device that can be used to treat precancerous cervical lesions.
While incident rates for cervical cancer have been trending downward for some 40 years in the U.S. and other industrialized nations, the disease continues to be extremely lethal in developing countries, Langell said. In those areas, it's the third most common form of cancer and fourth most deadly, she said.
Langell said the CinLuma device, which uses targeted heat to treat lesions, was developed by her team specifically to be very easy to use. More complicated procedures that require a medical doctor are not practical in the regions where the only accessible medical care may be coming from a nurse practitioner or, in some cases, a local medicine man, she explained.
"In order to do that, we designed a very simple but effective device," Langell said. "It's one button push, battery-powered, fully sterilizable and doesn't use any consumables."
Langell said the device has earned initial U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, and clinical trials are underway in Peru, Africa and India.
CinLuma was produced as the result of a cross-disciplinary team effort that included Langell as well as other medical, surgical and bioengineering students. The device was created for the 2015 Bench-2-Bed student competition run by the U.'s Center for Medical Innovation, Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and College of Engineering.
Marmer said collaborative projects like Langell's are becoming much more the norm at the University of Utah, and it reflects that positively disruptive and innovative approaches are coming from all academic disciplines.
"I think when we look down the road, this is going to be much more prevalent," he said. "We're going to see more and larger impacts coming out of cross-discipline and collaborative integration research and problem-solving efforts."
And while Marmer said it's an honor for the university to be recognized as a top performer in commercializing technology, there are no plans in place to take a rest to appreciate the laurels.
"The rankings are just a snapshot in time, and innovation is a constant," he said. "This is just a driver to do more."
To read the complete text of Milken Institute's 2017 rankings of the Best Universities for Technology Transfer, visit milkeninstitute.org.