Conducting research is expensive, and universities have less federal funding all the time, and tuition can only be raised so much. So where, then, are scientists supposed to find the money to pursue the advancement of human knowledge?
Increasingly, the business world has been the answer, as more universities sell rights to use their discoveries to high tech companies. In the optimistic view, the result is that more university research makes it to the marketplace where it can be used by consumers. The pessimistic take is that scientific resources are being diverted away from pure theoretical research that helps humankind in the long run and toward ideas that can immediately make money.
Michael Goedken, director of research commercialization at Rutgers, knows better than anyone the tradeoffs involved in that kind of transaction. “Basic researchers are nervous already,” Goedken says. “But they realize they cannot have their bar set so high that they aren’t receptive to finding alternate forms of revenue to fund their basic research. Academicians don’t like it, but I think they do realize the world is changing very quickly, and if you want to do basic research, you have to fund it. Every time a researcher writes a grant they are, in essence, a salesman.”
Goedken, who has a doctorate himself and is married to another PhD, says most funding from outside sources, including nonprofit groups, comes with the need to invent a potential practical use for whatever is being researched. “They try to pitch their basic research to meet a very specific functional, pragmatic need,” he says. “In the practice of writing a grant, they are becoming quite cognizant of the fact that while the knowledge for the sake of knowledge, though it is what allows the purest growth of the scientific collective growth of humanity, the actual funding is driven by something that is a little bit more realistic.”
Getting the business world and the academic world to work well together is what Goedken’s job is all about. He will speak on a panel at a New Jersey Entrepreneurial Network event on Wednesday, November 9, from noon to 3 p.m. at NJIT in Newark. “University Resources & Collaborations” will feature experts who will discuss university R&D public licensing, how small businesses can grow using university enterprise development centers, and technology commercialization in general. Tickets are $50. For more information, visit www.njen.org or call 609-688-9252.
Goedken, a pathologist and 12-year pharmaceutical industry veteran, is part of a group of faculty members that Rutgers hired because of their familiarity with the business world. He says that while most highly placed people in the biotech or other high tech industries understand universities because they earned advanced degrees, the same isn’t always true in reverse.
“Universities have had some barriers in working with private companies because the universities don’t know what private companies are expecting,” Goedken says.
Goedken’s goal is to get two groups with very different motivations together to work towards a common cause. As Goedken has seen throughout his career, both sides have their advantages. For example, academics often get to work on creative projects with no clear application, but which sometimes turn out to have very valuable commercial applications.
A good example of this phenomenon is Visikol, which grew out of a Rutgers plant microscopy class. Tom Villani, a teaching assistant at the time, learned of the highly impractical method that scientists used to make plant tissue transparent. It was done using an expensive and hard-to-obtain chemical called chloral hydrate, which also happened to be a highly regulated narcotic. Working with Rutgers professors Jim Simon and Adolfina Koroch, he created a safe, easy-to-use alternative: a reagent that can quickly turn plants clear. Together with TA Michael Johnson and researcher Nick Crider, they found the company Visikol to exploit the discovery.
“These guys came out of a plant lab, and their mentor didn’t know anything about animal physiology, and they didn’t know anything about the pharmaceutical industry,” Goedken recalls. “Their business plan was to take the reagent they had invented to homecoming dances and sell their product as a way to preserve every guy’s date corsage. That was the extent of their understanding of the utility of this product.”
Goedken, however, had a different view. As a pathologist, he quickly realized the potential of the invention for studying cancer, neuroscience, and toxicology. Because of his background in pathology, Goedken realized how useful the grad students’ product was to researchers. “In essence, pathology is about three things. Number one is having a very deep and broad understanding of a disease, what happens, how it happens, and who it happens to.” Getting a good, three-dimensional microscopic look at an organ can help immensely in this endeavor, as it turns out.
And as a former employee of Pfizer, Merck, and other big pharma companies, he had the contacts to help the startup get off the ground. Today Visikol is not targeting teenagers, but researchers in the biotech industry (who tend to be better funded than high school students).
Goedken grew up in Iowa, where his parents were farmers. He says milking cows was great training for his eventual career as a scientist because it gave him a long-term outlook on the value of hard work. “When I was six years old my job was to feed the baby calves. And if I didn’t feel like doing a good job, one of them might get diarrhea, or get sick and die. And two years down the line, we were not going to have a cow that could give us 30,000 pounds of milk a year, which was worth $900, all because you didn’t do your job. My upbringing on a farm like that was a wonderful lesson in the importance of taking your work seriously.”
He went on to get a doctorate at the University of West Virginia and embark on a career in private industry, where he worked with scientists doing basic research with Pfizer and Schering-Plough. However, he decided to return to the academic side, where serendipitous discoveries like Visikol could happen. Such a story is unlikely to come out of the highly goal-directed research of a company lab.