December 25, 2006

Lightning in a Bottle

Dan McCue  /  Charleston Regional Business Journal

MUSC's tech transfer agent 'wildly enthusiastic' about the future

As executive director for the Medical University of South Carolina's Foundation for Research Development, it's W.C. "Chip" Hood Jr.'s job to serve as the point man for the commercialization of discoveries coming out of MUSC. But talk to him for a while and a more apt job description might be "catcher of lightning in a bottle."

"Despite the wonderful job MUSC has done over the years, growing the research and creating the funding and human infrastructure to support it, taking a researcher's invention and finding a viable commercial application for it is always going to be a matter of latching on to an opportunity at the right time and under the right circumstances," Hood said. "Fortunately, I think those opportunities are going to become a lot more common now that the endowed chairs program is in place. There's no question in my mind that it's going to kick-start commercialization activity here in a major, major way."

"I'm widely enthusiastic about it and its possibilities," Hood added.

The long road

Tom Petty once sang that "the waiting is the hardest part." It's a sentiment that can be readily applied to the business of research or technology transfer. "Typically, the process works like this," Hood said. "A faculty member will invent something, create some kind of compound or technique or device, and then disclose it to us, which starts a process of assessment by me and our staff."

Prior to assuming the directorship, Hood served as in-house legal counsel for the foundation. He filed patent applications, and was involved in the evaluation of new technology, the development of technology commercialization strategies and the negotiation and drafting of license agreements. Earlier, he was an officer at Needle & Rosenberg, P.C. law firm, engaged in the practice of trademark and copyright law. Hood worked with the electronics/software, biotechnology and litigation practice groups of Needle & Rosenberg and headed up its Charleston office. "Our assessment is essentially looking at two things," he said. "Patentability and, more importantly, commercial viability."

"One of the funny things about this business is that while people come up with really good science that may improve life immeasurably, for one reason or another, it simply might not have commercial potential," Hood said.

The challenge of meeting that standard is three-fold. First, of course, the invention has to have a practical use and deliver a verifiable benefit. Secondly, it has to be patentable. "It needs to be something you can protect, legally, or else a company won't invest in it," Hood said. Finally, the potential product must have a match-a commercial entity-that has the ability to bring it to market.

"In some cases, the match might be a big pharmaceutical company," Hood said. "At other times, it might be a startup devoted solely to this product. In either case, the fit has to be a natural one or you can't make it work."

Director expects busy workload

Over the past decade, MUSC administrators have increased the support for research at the university from $20 million to nearly $190 million, Hood said. With that growth has come an ever-increasing number of discoveries.

"It was a wonderful effort, but (it was) tied to one or two or more researchers getting grants and, particularly, funding from the National Institutes of Health," he said. "One of the impacts of having the endowed chairs at MUSC is that I think there will be a multiplier factor. They'll be attacking the technology problem from several different angles, and in many cases, their work will feed into the work of other endowed chairs and visa versa. That will make for a much more robust research environment and, by extension, a more robust commercialization environment."

The key will be a willingness to wait for the impact of the program to become evident. "It's going to take a year or two to really start seeing the impact because the research-to-commercialization process simply takes time," Hood said. "Like anybody else in their field, they have to come up with an idea, write a proposal, get it funded, start the research and then, hopefully, discover something. Then from there, it typically takes five to eight years to get through the (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration's approval process."

Getting lots of help

Although he's immersed in a world of discovery, Hood remains firmly grounded. "Money is the name of the game to get (commercialization) happening," he said. "We get maybe 50 invention discoveries a year at MUSC, but applying for patents is expensive. The application fee alone can be $10,000 to $15,000 for a single invention."

"That's why I'm excited about the state's Venture Capital Act, which is about to go into effect and will provide $50 million in backing for venture capital funds so long as they invest in South Carolina," he said. "Science aside, our biggest challenge has always been finding the money to support a startup that may capitalize on our breakthroughs."

One of the foundation's first big successes was with a California-based startup rather than one based in South Carolina. The company, Micrus Endovascular, manufactures and markets an aneurysm coil developed at MUSC. Hood said while the foundation would have loved to work with a local entity, adequate local venture capital simply didn't exist at the time. "Venture capitalists and those that invest in startups like their investments to be close at hand, so they can keep an eye on them," Hood said. "If they can't be, they at least want experienced managers to be on hand to try to stave off a business failure."

"Unfortunately, we had neither of those things and 'our' startup had to be where they were, in this case, California." But Hood said the situation has been changing. "The first thing is, we have managed to have a handful of startups get a toehold here, so we're starting to have a population of experienced managers," he said. "Those companies are also making it easier to lure managers here to head other startups because there's more of a sense that if their company fails, they can find other work locally."

Another factor is the South Carolina Research Authority's creation of programs such as SC Launch!, which provides early-stage funding of up to $200,000 to emerging companies. Hood said the program enables companies to survive long enough to qualify for "next-stage" funding from organizations such as the Charleston Angel Partners, which in turn helps establish the groundwork for later investment by full-blown venture capitalists.

"SCBIO is a fantastic development," Hood said. "They're an outstanding resource that can really help a small startup company in the technology field chart a course for its future.Still another is Health Sciences South Carolina, a collaboration between our research universities and teaching hospitals that's becoming a powerful tool in the life sciences area for attracting venture capital and forming bridges between research in that area and the money that's needed to support it."

Entire state is in play

To date, Hood estimates, MUSC alone has spun off about a dozen startup companies, and he believes the number will quickly multiply since the endowed chairs, a statewide collaboration between MUSC, the University of South Carolina and Clemson University, now are in place. The statewide nature of the effort is particularly evident in the collaborative relationships Hood has with his colleagues at the research foundations at USC and Clemson, he said.

"We're all very close and talk regularly, sharing leads and ideas," he said. "We also meet in person every other month, all in the hope that we can help each other and capitalize on the fact that each of the universities has its own technology strength and focus. "\It would be nice if the startups stayed in Charleston, but given the statewide nature of the program, it'll be a success no matter where in the state these companies form. At the end of the day, fostering commercialization isn't about any one location in the state or any one campus. What's good for one really is good for all in the long run."

Editors Note: Chip Hood is currently serving a two year term as a member on the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation Board.