Commercializing New Technology

Friday, September 1, 2006 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Brad Burke, Managing Director, Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

Editor: What vision led to the creation of Rice Alliance?

Burke: Launched in 2000, Rice Alliance builds on Rice University's strengths in the sciences and engineering, along with its strong MBA program. Its mission is to support the creation of technology-based companies and the commercialization of new technologies in Houston and the Southwest region. The alliance specializes in several key areas, including nanotechnology, life sciences, energy technology and information technology.

Editor: Congratulations on celebrating the start of Rice Alliance's seventh year.

Burke: We are celebrating the success of entrepreneurs - along with their supporters and investors - in commercializing technology. Over the years, we have helped to launch some 170 companies, which in turn have raised over $300 million in early stage capital.

Our kick-off event last month focused on nanotechnology medicine, which has a variety of practical uses such as diagnosing and treating cancer and cardiovascular disease. One example is the many uses of a bucky ball. Shaped like a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, it would look like a soccer ball if you could blow it up. A gold coated bucky ball can be injected into a cancerous tumor. An infrared laser will heat up the bucky ball, which kills the tumor without impacting the surrounding tissue.

The developers of this application of the bucky ball are faculty members at Rice University. Based on their research, a spin-out company is now working in partnership with the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. This is just one example of the great results of collaboration that finds a nanotechnology application that leads to a breakthrough in oncology treatment.

Editor: How does your state government support nanotechnology entrepreneurship?

Burke: The Texas legislature recently created a $200 million program called the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. Two parts relate to funding for early stage companies. The third part relates to bringing in world-class researchers into Texas.

Editor: How does Rice Alliance help serve as a model for bringing together academic, business, investment and legal communities to advance technology entrepreneurship?

Burke: We do several things from the academic side. We provide education to the academic community - Ph.D. candidates; undergraduates; faculty members, engineers, scientists and the like - on what it takes to take their technology from the lab to the marketplace. We ask legal experts to teach models that address such questions as, how do you protect your intellectual property? What's required to create your corporate structure? How do you set up stock options for the founders, academics and employees that you will hire? We ask experts from the investment community to explain such funding options as federal grants, angel funding and venture capital and their appropriateness at different life cycles of the company.

We also host technology venture forums, which focus on our four core areas: nanotechnology, life sciences, information technology and energy technology. They have two parts.

First, early stage companies present their business plans to an audience of attorneys, investors, business people, other academics and students. Then a venture capital panel gives feedback to the presenter in front of the audience. The process not only connects investors with entrepreneurs, but also educates the audience.

Second, we invite faculty members to present to a business audience. Companies such as Dow Chemical, Applied Materials and Shell Oil like to learn about the leading edge research and development that can impact the future of their industries. We hope that the connections made at our forums ultimately lead to a commercialized product.

Another way we serve as a role model is our one-on-one work with entrepreneurs and start-up companies that come to us with specific needs. Most need funding. We help match them with investors interested in commercializing the relevant technology.

Editor: Who are some of your sponsoring organizations?

Burke: Our great group of sponsors falls into several categories. Most of the larger law firms in Houston support our initiatives. The contacts they make can help develop long-term relationships in supporting entrepreneurs and startup companies in such obvious areas of intellectual property, corporate structure, funding contracts and eventually mergers, acquisitions or an IPO. As you can see, law firms play an invaluable role in the ongoing life of the company.

Accounting firms and financial services industries - like Ernst & Young, Deloitte and Pannell Kerr Forster of Texas - are another category. We also have support from corporations - like Chevron and Shell Technology Ventures - because they are looking for technologies to help improve the operations of their company.

Another category includes our venture capital supporters - like Austin Ventures, Sevin Rosen Funds, and Essex Woodlands, which are three of the largest venture capital firms in Texas.

The last category encompasses individuals - like the group of six entrepreneurs who have formed what they call GOOSE Society of Texas, which stands for the Grand Order of Successful Entrepreneurs, which is a memorable name. They offer a $100,000 investment grand prize at the annual Rice Business Plan competition, which attracts competitors from 36 MBA schools around the globe. The grand prize is one part of over $250,000 in total investment prizes, which help entrepreneurs to jump start their companies.

We have a great variety of other supporters, ranging from the small to the large. I'd like to encourage your readers to visit www.rice.alliance.edu to see our ever-growing list of supporters, as well as the results of the efforts they are helping to develop and promote.

Editor: Please give our readers some examples of Rice Alliance success stories.

Burke: Success stories come in a couple different flavors. The use of nanotechnology in the cancer treatment that I mentioned is being commercialized by Nanospectra Biosciences, which is one of the startup companies helped by Rice Alliance.

Another is a company called Nanocomposites. A spin-out based on nanotechnology helped by Rice Alliance, the company is using carbon nanotubes in elastomer rubber seals, with O rings as an example. Scientists found that the injection of carbon nanotubes in the elastomer improves the performance of the O rings and other materials that they develop to be able to withstand extremely high temperatures and pressures.

Another application of carbon nanotubes is called a blow-out preventer and is used on drilling rigs. When drilling and producing oil under extremely high pressures and temperatures, it is critical to prevent blowouts that can damage the rig. Nanocomposites is partnering with an oil field services company in Houston called Hydril to bring this application for blowout preventers to the marketplace to improve the drilling operations for the energy industry.

A third example of a company helped by Rice Alliance is itRobotics. Dr. Fathi Ghorbel, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Rice University, designed a state-of-the art robotic inspection device that can wind its way through conduit to detect its condition and quality. This is very important to the energy industry for many reasons. For example, aging pipelines in the U.S. are susceptible to corrosion. Pipeline corrosion can be troublesome for natural gas pipelines, especially if the gas contains high levels of sulfur. Regular inspection of the pipelines is critical. The unique capabilities of the itRobotics device include its ability to inspect very narrow pipelines and coiled tubing, as well as to go around corners and bends. This summer, the company was awarded a $750,000 grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to help develop commercial products that will improve the safety and integrity of the global energy infrastructure, as well as contribute to Texas' economic development.

Editor: Where do you see Rice Alliance being in, say, the next five years?

Burke: That's a good question because we are now in the process of putting together our five-year strategic plan. We would like to spread Rice University's excellent reputation as a center of technology entrepreneurship worldwide. One way we have described our mission in the past to make it easily understood by the public is that we want to be viewed as playing the role in Houston and Texas that Stanford University played in Silicon Valley.

Rice University has a world-class science and engineering faculty and researchers, and an emerging top-tier business school. However, due to its smaller size, Rice is less well known that other academic institutions.

The Texas Medical Center, which is across the street from Rice University, is the largest medical center in the world. There is over a billion dollars of annual research in the areas of oncology, cardiovascular and many other specialties. What we would like to see is the commercialization of more research and, as a result, more successful technology companies being launched.

Our vision is that five years from now, when people think about what are the leading centers of technology entrepreneurship in the world, they will think of Rice University as one of them. They will also recognize Houston as not just being the energy oil and gas capital of the world, but also for its strength across all areas of technology and technology entrepreneurship.