Invent Penn State reviews 20-year tech transfer legacy as Ron Huss retires

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- January 2015 President Barron announced the launch of Invent Penn State and created a groundswell of activity and support for entrepreneurship and tech transfer across the University. The initiative received considerable media coverage and garnered attention from Commonwealth leadership by providing seed grant funding for 17 innovation hubs across Pennsylvania, hosting its inaugural Venture & IP Conference and launching seven tech ventures born of Penn State research.

While the initiative may seem like an overnight success, underpinning that idea is a 20-year legacy of deliberate tech transfer policy and program development, most of which happened under the steady leadership of Ron Huss, associate vice president for research and director of the Office of Technology Management (OTM). Huss will retire June 30after 20 years of service to Penn State.

“Ron’s policy and program development moved tech transfer at Penn State from its infancy into a mature program, laying a solid foundation on which the accelerated activities of the Invent Penn State initiative have grown,” said Neil Sharkey, vice president for research at Penn State.

For those unfamiliar with tech transfer at Penn State, it’s the process of transferring scientific findings to another organization to develop their commercial value, which requires patents and licensing. Huss was instrumental in developing the policies at Penn State that made the process of licensing and the University’s ability to accept equity possible. When faculty, staff or students discover innovations that might have commercial potential, the OTM can assist with the patenting and licensing process.

The OTM manages hundreds of active patents across myriad scientific disciplines. Since Huss joined Penn State in 1996 the University has been issued 890 U.S. patents and transferred 395 technologies. Huss and his staff have worked with inventors from agriculture, engineering, materials science, life sciences, education and more, a testament to Penn State’s research breadth, which is greater than most universities.

The patenting process involves market research and reviews by a committee made up of research deans from the colleges of sciences and engineering, as well as legal counsel. Once patented, the goal is to license the technology, either to an existing business with interest in that field or to a new startup. While the majority of Penn State’s tech transfer revenue is generated through licensing, the University also places a high value on fostering startups.

During Huss’s 20-year tenure, Penn State launched 113 startups. Because new ventures need support, for example entrepreneurship training and investment, Huss helped to forge a partnership with Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA to address Penn State’s growing needs. TechCelerator, a bootcamp-style training program, was created to support faculty, staff, student and community entrepreneurs. The result has been a doubling of startups in recent years and Ben Franklin is a significant investor in Penn State intellectual property (IP)-based startups.

The commercialization process for IP can take a long time. Huss remembers when the OTM was approached with intellectual property based on collaborative chemistry research between Penn State and Stanford University in the late 1990s, early in his Penn State career. Huss and his team assisted with the patenting process, bundled the IP and then licensed it to Anacor Pharmaceuticals, a startup launched to use the new technology. Just last year, not long before Huss would announce his retirement, Anacor Pharmaceuticals was purchased by Pfizer for $5.2 billion dollars.

Invent Penn State was created, in part, to accelerate that often long and complex commercialization process, and Ron was a key member of the planning committee. Programs like the Venture & IP Conference, the Fund for Innovation and the seed grant program that has provided funding for 17 innovation hubs in Pennsylvania have sprung from that initial planning.

“President Barron’s focus and commitment, and the support from the highest level of leadership was key to its [Invent Penn State’s] success,” Huss noted. “Across the University, we’ve seen faculty, staff and students take renewed interest in this work. There’s more interest, more support, and more programs.”  

In 2012, Huss also was a key leader in the process to update the University’s company-sponsored research policy, another important source of innovation for Penn State. The revolutionary policy encourages business investment in academic research by making intellectual property resulting from industry sponsored research available for ownership. The streamlined policy and process serve as a model for other universities, dozens of which have approached Penn State about emulating the program.

As Huss prepares to retire on June 30, he sees a bright future for economic development at the University. “The best is yet to come,” he noted, “Penn State is well positioned to continue to grow and to have impact. It’s a magnet for research dollars, and groups in this space are working to make sure the public benefits from all of those research efforts in the most efficient way possible.”

“We will miss Ron’s sage advice and steady hand on the tiller, but his legacy will surely live on for years to come,” said Sharkey.

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Last Updated August 10, 2017