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What the Milken Institute Rankings Mean to Me (or Why We Do What We Do)

By David Day posted 04-27-2017 14:40

The Milken Institute rankings are so much bigger than numbers in what they represent.
The Milken Institute numbers tell only part of the story.

The March for Science made front page news all over the United States as we celebrated Earth Day, but the profession of tech transfer marches in support of science every day — whether the media is watching or not. At the University of Florida Office of Technology Licensing, we like to think we make a difference for the #GatorGood, indeed, the greater global good, every time we help move a scientist’s discovery from the lab into the marketplace where it can make the world a better place.

Last week, the Milken Institute released its newest ranking of the technical commercialization efforts of universities, and UF ranks 3rd in the nation. The Milken Institute is an independent economic think tank whose mission is to improve lives and economic conditions of diverse populations around the world by helping leaders recognize and put into action innovative ideas for creating broad-based prosperity.

We are determined every day to be a part of that.

In designating their rankings, Milken measured and weighed patents granted, licenses executed, licensing income, and startups. In the past four we generated 395 patents, 547 licenses and options, $127.9 million in income, and 62 startups.

“Our top-ranked tech transfer operation is driving economic development and cycling royalty dollars back into research,” UF Vice President for Research David Norton told Milken. “More importantly, it’s moving the research out of the lab and into the world.”

We are driven by the knowledge that without our efforts some lifesaving medicine may not make it to the market. That is a heavy responsibility from which we will not, as Tom Petty sings, back down. We will do what it takes to launch these deals with the researchers and industry successfully. Whether it is hustling to find a CEO with whom a scientist can partner, being flexible on deal terms, or financially supporting a patent without a sponsor to give good science an opportunity to mature — we are in it for the long run.

We are a relationship group. Last year over half of our deals were with companies with whom we had previously done business. We rely upon the brilliant discoveries of our scientists and our commercial partners; without either one we would not exist. By doing this, our office puts technology to work and gives technology a face while doing so.

Consider Shirley, for example, whose life was handicapped by pain until a technology discovered by UF scientists inspired entrepreneurs, who started the company Axogen, which developed the nerve graft doctors used in Shirley’s leg, removing pain that had plagued her since childhood.

That same company saved the arm of Marine Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Cole, after he was shot during a 2010 firefight in Afghanistan. He was one of the first patients in the world to receive one of the longest available nerve grafts made by Axogen — nearly 3 inches, grown from cadaver tissue — to repair his arm. Instead of an amputated limb, Jeffrey has full use and feeling in his arm.

Charles was the first patient treated the MRIdian system, developed by a UF researcher and brought to market by ViewRay. After being diagnosed with an aggressive and deadly cancer, Charles received the combined imaging and radiation treatment system, which, said Charles, “has given me the most precious gift… time.”

We take pride in the number of startups our office can claim. Of the 195 started in my tenure with OTL, nearly 75 percent of them are still in business. Do these companies make money and provide jobs? Absolutely. Axogen reported revenue of $41 million in 2016 and a growth rate of 50 percent over the preceding year. ViewRay reported revenue of $22 million in 2016, more than doubling revenue from 2015 ($10.4 million).

Tech transfer is bigger than our office. We depend on innovators discovering, entrepreneurs lending their business expertise and vision, investors funding that vision, and, ultimately, the end users who make it all worthwhile.

Just this week, someone said to me, “I have this underlying belief that people who discover or seek to invest money or effort into getting technologies into the market are altruistic in the sense that they are not driven (just) by fame or fortune but by a desire to help make things better. Am I correct?”

She is so correct. That is what makes this business so gratifying. Yes, I’m thrilled that the Milken Institute ranked our university’s technology commercialization efforts as 3rd in the country. But I am more thrilled at what that ranking represents: being a vital part of the process by which discoveries are making our world a better place.