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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

UH research brings in $809,340

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Professor Michael Antal Jr. holds a corncob turned into charcoal through a technology he developed at UH. The process is producing revenue for the university, but finding business partners can be difficult.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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University of Hawai'i researchers are making progress in converting more of their discoveries into dollars.

UH collected $809,340 in licensing revenue in the year ending June 30, 2004. That was up from $534,000 the year before.

"We're certainly not where we want to be, but we're getting better," said Dick Cox, director of the UH Office of Technology Transfer.

UH ranks 115th in revenue among 219 U.S. research institutions, according to a recent survey by the Association of University Technology Managers. The year before, UH ranked 134th.

The state's main institution of higher learning spent nearly $200 million on research activity in the year ending June 30, 2004. UH ranked 72nd in terms of research spending, according to the survey.

In another benchmark invention discoveries per $1 million spent on research UH ranked 148th.

The $200 million raised and spent by UH, which includes money obtained through grants, has its own economic impact by funding research and supporting jobs. However, UH and state officials agree that the university can play a larger role in the growth and diversification of the state's economy. That starts with UH being a hub of research activity that can spin off businesses, technologies and jobs.

"It's a challenge to get researchers to think more in commercial terms to take things off the research bench and put them into the commercial area," said Ted Liu, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. "It is a process. Hopefully, we'll start seeing more results in the foreseeable future."

The university's relatively low licensing revenue results from a combination of factors ranging from the type of research conducted to a lack of a large industrial base of businesses in Hawai'i. Sometimes it also is a matter of getting researchers to think in commercial terms. To address the problem, UH has reorganized its technology transfer operation and restructured licensing agreements to give researchers more money earlier in the licensing process than in years past.

State officials also have sought federal research grants that, along with matching state money, have been spent to help researchers connect with private businesses.

Although universities historically have focused on basic and theoretical research, dwindling budgets have increased the need to generate money from research efforts. UH needs to earn $1.6 million to $1.8 million from its inventions just to offset the patent and other administrative costs associated with technology transfer. With just $809,340 in licensing revenue raised in fiscal 2004, UH has a way to go before its technology transfer efforts break even.

Among the inventions generating income for UH is a technology that turns green waste into charcoal, developed by professor Michael Antal Jr. Finding businesses to partner with has been difficult given Hawai'i's geographic isolation and relatively small industrial base. That makes it difficult for UH researchers to commercialize their ideas, he said.

In addition, "The areas that we are strong in that bring in a lot of money (such as ocean sciences and astronomy), involve basic science research. They're not generating a lot of patents."

Another barrier to technology transfer is the state's ethics code, which makes it difficult for UH faculty to develop intellectual property with the private sector, said Roger Lukas, head of the UH Association of Research Investigators and a professor of oceanography.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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