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ODU gets down to business

Updated: January 20, 2012 - 1:03 pm

Posted: January 13, 2012

Inventors and entrepreneurs struggle to launch their ideas.

They are flummoxed by a morass of red tape and nervous investors, who, in this weary economic climate, want an immediate return.

Old Dominion University may have an answer, or at least is offering solutions to the problem of transforming ideas into profits.

The idea, according to two ODU officials, is to marry the pursuit of knowledge, a mission of universities, with the management of knowledge, a private sector endeavor.

Tom Osha, president and CEO of Innovation Research Park at ODU, and Jerry Robertson, executive director of the university's Gateway initiative, recently highlighted this connection between a university and inventors and entrepreneurs in Hampton.

The Jan. 5 event, called "Working with ODU in the Aerospace Center," was sponsored by Innovate!Hampton Roads, an initiative launched by the Hampton Roads Partnership to drive jobs and the regional economy.

Osha said technology is getting more, not less, expensive, so companies must change how they do business.

ODU has an economic development role, Osha said, but it must become an active instead of passive participant in the economy.

The private sector can leverage the leading research of universities, such as modeling and simulation and oceanography, Osha said.

"But that's easy to say and hard to do," he said. "Businesses and universities are like Mars and Venus.

"I once was in business. I knew who could say yes. In the world of universities, I know who can say no."

ODU's Business Gateway is a single entry point and the front door for all of the university's services, Osha told the audience.

So what are the resources?

Robertson explained.

They are the students, the faculties and the specialized laboratories where experiments and tests, such as materials testing and software development, are conducted.

Robertson listed some examples of companies ODU has helped, such as Rebatt Inc., Solo Manufacturing and Bay Beyond.

Working with ODU, Rebatt reduced its costs by $209,000 over five years due to a redesign of the company's assembly line to recondition camera batteries.

For Solo, ODU redesigned the assembly of a pump, which saved the company $5 million, boosted its revenues and lowered the high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome employees were contracting because of the previous assembly operation.

Bay Beyond, a bunch of neighbors who concocted a special spice, needed help to satisfy a contract with Kroger grocery stores.

ODU stepped up.

"Kroger wanted the product," Robertson said. "The client couldn't keep up, but they did get national exposure."

Osha and Robertson addressed the question of who owns the intellectual property, a fear among entrepreneurs.

Osha said ODU has taken some new approaches to the intellectual property rights question, such as the entrepreneur working for hire, since he or she has an idea but no funds.

"We would rather take a little on the front end and then take a payout down the road," Osha said.

In the fall, the ODU Board of Visitors launched the ODU Innovation Foundation, which creates a safe harbor for entrepreneurs, Osha said, independent of the university and more flexible.

Examples of ventures via the foundation include sweat equity shops or industry "seeded" projects, conducted within the foundation.

ODU is looking at other ways to transform ideas into companies and profits, such as creating an express licensing program for university research to speed research to the commercial marketplace.

North Carolina created one in 2010 through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is called the Carolina Express License Agreement.

Virginia doesn't have one. But state officials at the Secretariat of Commerce and Trade are considering it, Osha said.

He also said they are considering the idea of subsidizing intellectual property and products.

Osha praised the draw of ODU's Innovation Research Park, saying it creates a sense of place for entrepreneurs.

To bring people together, the park hosts a monthly event called "unWined."

-- By Philip Newswanger

philip.newswanger@insidebiz.com