InnovateTech Ventures helps universities bring technology to market

FAIRFAX,VA. SEPT. 9.: Gerard Eldering,(R) of Innovate Tech meets with Jennifer Murphy of George Mason's Tech Transfer program, in the Engineering Building at GMU on Sept. 9, 2010. ( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )
FAIRFAX,VA. SEPT. 9.: Gerard Eldering,(R) of Innovate Tech meets with Jennifer Murphy of George Mason's Tech Transfer program, in the Engineering Building at GMU on Sept. 9, 2010. ( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan ) (Jeffrey Macmillan - Jeffrey Macmillan For Washington Post)
By Steven Overly
Monday, September 13, 2010

For a year and a half, District resident Richelle Burnett sought the right business opportunity, something that would marry her engineering education with her entrepreneurial ambition.

Meanwhile, James Madison University in Virginia needed a sharp business mind to take a university accreditation test that faculty and doctoral students developed and bring it to market.

Through Gerard Eldering, they found each other.

Eldering is the founder of InnovateTech Ventures, a company that matches entrepreneurs with opportunities to bring university-developed technology to market. In three years, he has quietly amassed a database of 130 entrepreneurs and now works on behalf of seven universities.

The idea seems simple enough: Universities contract with Eldering to look through their research portfolio to help them select projects with commercial potential, then he combs his database of entrepreneurs to find those who might be interested. His rate starts at $7,000 a year for small universities.

But InnovateTech clients on both sides of this process, known as tech transfer, said it expedites an otherwise arduous slog of meetings, dead ends and failed pursuits. For the universities, it also expands their reach to entrepreneurs who may not have paid much attention before.

"I didn't think I'd ever end up in higher education, but you can find a product that's near ready to go to market and you don't have to spend years developing it if you get matched with the right situation," said Burnett, the chief executive of Madison Assessment.

Eldering said Burnett's company is one of six successful pairings so far, though two of the contracts have yet to be officially inked. Of the remaining 12 technologies he is currently shopping out, another six have interested entrepreneurs and the rest seemed to fizzle out.

"None of these companies is a guarantee ... but what you want to do is lower your risk, and one way to do that is to bring in experienced talent," Eldering said. "The more entrepreneurs we talk to, the majority of them don't know a lot about this tech transfer business."

Eldering stepped down as director of the technology transfer office at McLean-based government contractor Mitre in 2007, taking with him a list of connections nurtured over the past eight years.

Among them was Jennifer Murphy, the assistant vice president for research and economic development at George Mason University in Fairfax. As the head of the university's tech transfer office, Murphy oversees a staff of six, none of whom can pursue entrepreneurs full-time.

"We're understaffed, so to go to enough networking events to find our own contacts is just nearly impossible," she said. Her office pays Eldering $15,000 a year.

But the difficulty isn't just finding people, she added. "It's not just a marriage between the entrepreneur and the technology, but between the entrepreneur and the faculty inventors. There are a lot of little pieces that need to come together, and they're not always easy puzzles."

Having started small businesses himself, Eldering can often anticipate the questions an entrepreneur is likely to ask: How much seed money is needed? Will venture capital investors be necessary? How soon to market?

Eldering said part of his tactic is the ability to cast a wide net, well beyond the university's immediate surroundings. "The issue is that they're hard to find, not that there is a lack of entrepreneurs. But part of the formula is how widely you look," he said.

Eldering built his business in the mid-Atlantic region, with such clients as Georgetown University, Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William & Mary. He now aims to expand nationally and already counts North Dakota State University and Case Western Reserve as clients.

"We absolutely could not have found them," Mary Lou Bourne, JMU's director of tech transfer, said of the two entrepreneurs who have licensed the university's assessment technology. (Her office pays Eldering $12,000 annually.) "They would not have had any reason to come looking within our university or any other. It takes this special facilitation and connection to really see if there is a potential for a match here."

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