New office hopes to help technology reach marketplace

Jared Roddy

If the Office of Business Development had been around a decade ago, people might be surfing the Web with Gopher instead of Netscape.

“We had the very first browser in the world – it was called the Gopher, and we didn’t commercialize it,” said Doug Johnson, director of the University’s new Office of Business Development.

Johnson, who also directs the Carlson Ventures Enterprise, said Google, Yahoo! and Netscape, all creations of different universities, have made hundreds of millions of dollars for their investors since the demise of Gopher.

The Office of Business Development will work to make sure that start-up companies based on University developments such as Gopher have access to venture capital and the support they need. The office had its grand opening Wednesday.

“We want investors to have more direct access to University ideas, and scientists and inventions,” Johnson said. “The goal of the ‘U’ is to do research and make it available for the world. That takes money and people.”

Before a standing-room-only crowd at the grand opening, University President Bob Bruininks said the University had passed an important milestone. He said the University has had trouble transferring technology to the marketplace in the past.

“If you look at the history of the University, this is something we have not done well,” he said.

The crowd groaned audibly when Bruininks asked if they remembered Gopher.

Previously, the Office of Patents and Technology Marketing handled new technology licensing, said Bruce Erickson, the office’s communications coordinator. The office would decide whether to license an invention to an existing entity or start a new business to handle it.

“Basically, they thought the University could do better,” Erickson said. “There was room for improvement on how we help start-up companies and support them.”

This function will not change, but the new Office of Business Development will analyze whether a new technology warrants a start-up company, Johnson said.

According to a University news release, the new office will also help start-ups create a business plan, find funding for promising scientific projects and act as a point of entry for venture capitalists who want to interact with University resources.

“People complain about the fact that it is difficult to find anyone at the ‘U,’ ” Johnson said. “The University has 1.6 million Web sites and no index, so we’re going to be sort of a front door for (investors).”

Carlson School of Management graduate students will decide, in part, whether a development warrants the creation of a new company.

“We put it together in order to bring real-world experience to MBA students and at the same time provide a cost-effective way to evaluate opportunities,” Johnson said.

He has a class of 20 students who will work with him and four staffers in the Office of Business Development. After they make their decision, outside advisory boards will have the final say.

Seth Stattmiller, one of 20 Carlson Ventures Enterprise graduate students working with the office, was working in a back office during the event.

“I think it’s a perfect fit – we help the ‘U’ further its mission, and we get to do exactly what we want to do,” Stattmiller said.