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Spinoff machines rev up

BU and other universities, as well as teaching hospitals, are stepping up their efforts to hatch new businesses, MIT-style

Brandon Johnson
At BU School of Management, Brandon Johnson (center), 25, president of Boston Microfluids, outlines his point-of-care testing technology for sexually transmitted diseases. (Globe Photo / David L. Ryan)

Brandon T. Johnson was a biomedical engineering undergraduate at Boston University in 2004 when he stumbled upon an idea for a device that could reduce the time it takes to process tests for sexually transmitted diseases from days to minutes.

Three years later, Johnson's idea has become a business, Boston Fluidics Inc. The 25-year-old company president, who during his student days never envisioned himself as an entrepreneur, has opened up his first business office at his alma mater, BU.

His device will let patients get nearly immediate test results for diseases like gonorrhea or syphilis at clinics or doctors' offices and eventually at home.

"Business is the way I'm going to be making a difference," Johnson said. "I thought it was going to be engineering, but it turned out to be business."

He is the first participant in BU's Entrepreneurial Research Lab, a program begun last month by the university's School of Management and its Office of Technology Development to spur the formation of companies and commercialize technology from BU's labs.

Under the program, Johnson gets a starter office at the university's Photonics Center, a technology incubator on St. Mary's Street overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike. In exchange for mentoring students and taking part in research experiments on how to spin off companies, he receives a fellowship that pays his rent.

BU's new program is part of a broader trend in which colleges, universities, and academic teaching hospitals across the country step up their efforts to hatch companies.

The goals and benefits are varied: boosting local economies, bringing home-grown technologies to the marketplace, adding a real-world dimension to their education, and padding university coffers with royalties from technology licenses.

Many seek to borrow a page from the playbook of research-oriented schools like MIT and Stanford University. Their famous spinoffs include web content host Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge (MIT) and the Internet search provider Google Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. (Stanford).

In the Boston area, Harvard University hired Isaac T. Kohlberg as a senior associate provost to manage its Office of Technology Development in 2005, in a bid to commercialize more inventions and draw more research dollars. Partners HealthCare, parent of Boston's big Harvard-affiliated hospitals, recently said that it is setting up a venture capital fund to push more technology out of their labs and into the market.

Other spinoff initiatives are underway at state universities around the nation, from the University of Massachusetts to the University of North Carolina, often in partnership with state governments. UMass, for instance, has been promoting start-ups in the nanotechnology field.

"It's been a long learning curve for everybody," said Lita L. Nelsen, director of MIT's Technology Licensing Office, which is regarded as a national leader in technology transfer. "The number of schools that have gotten competent in this area has been increasing significantly. Most are getting into it for its economic impact and to help get new technologies, drugs, and medicines into the economy."

BU has been sharpening its focus on nurturing start-ups and developing intellectual property under new president Robert A. Brown, the former MIT provost. A new Institute for Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization at BU's School of Management has a dual charter of supporting entrepreneurship education and providing resources to fuel more start-ups across BU schools, from its School of Public Health and College of Fine Arts to its School of Medicine and College of Engineering, traditional springboards for start-ups.

"There's a tremendous science and technology base here at the university," said Jonathan J. Rosen, executive director of BU's new institute. "We will be spinning out more companies, and we believe we'll be spinning out better companies, companies that remain connected to the university."

Not everyone thinks the increased attention to spinoffs at US universities is a good thing.

Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, said that too much of the motivation revolves around attracting government and private research funds and granting technology licenses that can reap giant royalties if start-ups are successful. Stanford has prospered from its technology licensing to Google, and MIT from its licensing to Akamai and others.

"It's kind of an unfortunate trend," Shane said, "because the technologies at universities that are worth starting companies around are few and far between. Universities are pushing too hard. They're like people buying lottery tickets, and they all want the Google ticket."

BU officials, for their part, said the pursuit of royalties isn't their main motive. Instead, they said, their interest in entrepreneurship mirrors that of their students who seek jobs in technology start-ups rather than big corporations.

"The center of gravity here has moved away from the large companies," said Clifford J. Robinson, director of business incubation at the university's Office of Technology Development.

Graduates like Brandon Johnson, the biomedical engineering student who founded Boston Microfluidics, are becoming "living case studies" of how BU can foster viable businesses, Robinson said. Johnson is being mentored by BU faculty members, some of whom sit on his business or scientific advisory boards.

Other efforts by BU's Office of Technology Development help faculty members commercialize technology. Among its past successes is Sequenom Inc., a San Diego life sciences company that makes software and equipment for genotyping. It was cofounded by Charles Cantor, a former BU professor of biomedical engineering and biophysics, partly from technology developed in university labs.

"We're trying to align our entrepreneurial activities with the research and education mission of the university," said Stan Willie, executive director of BU's Office of Technology Development.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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