Changes in the R&D environment are driving research managers to look at different ways to support and grow their organizations.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Mickey McCabe. I’m Vice President for Research and Executive Director of the Research Institute at the University of Dayton. I’ve been there 19 years. Before that, I spent 18 years in corporate R&D mostly notably with GE Aviation.
How important are collaborations or partnerships with other organizations to the research and development process?
The collaboration process for UDRI is a strategic one. I think the power of the collaboration is in picking the right partners. When we do that, we’re looking for something specific that revolves around the technology idea or the research project. And, we’re looking at not just brains but money because collaboration means that you’re going to have to share to gain. Hardly any of us can afford the cost of R&D today as it is. So, by collaborating, you can spread that cost a little bit. By picking the right industrial partner, you have a built in mechanism to transition your technology if you do it correctly.
And hopefully, by picking the right industrial partner, you’ve got market pull and not technology push. So the collaborative process is just essential. And the other place that’s coming into play now, but our air force customer really wants to engage a lot of people in Asia and in Europe, people who are not allowed to go behind the gates at DOD facilities. And so they use third parties like us to bring those people across and into a neutral space where people can interact. Complying with export control is extremely important in this area.
But getting the brains and the power and the creativity of people from different parts of the world is important, and you can accomplish that through smart collaborations.
What key technologies introduced in the last 10 years have helped improve the R&D process?
A couple of things come to mind. Integrated product teams have been fantastic and, of course, they’ve been around for a while. But the power of IPTs is that you can pick people from different disciplines to solve a very complicated technological problem. So the integrated product teams are something we employ routinely to approach multidisciplinary work. The other thing I think that’s really starting to have an effect is open innovation. Working in the e-Cloud. Getting people involved that want to tune into the Internet and make a contribution somehow and have an intelligent discussion can bring new approaches and ideas to your challenge.
So the open collaboration, open innovation, those are things that I think have really, really helped us. The other thing that’s interesting is the ability now to do an experiment in somebody else’s laboratory remotely. And we employed that a lot with partners such as Ohio State University where the experiment is actually done in Columbus, but in Dayton, our researcher is controlling it. And so that brings me to YouTube, which we tend to think that YouTube has been around for a long while. Not really, it started in 2005, seven years ago. And the power of You Tube is quite remarkable. In summary, R&D is benefitting from our ability to involve a diverse group of people to do things that we couldn’t do 10 years ago as well as the cyberspace aspect.
What’s on your wish list for improving the R&D process at your company? What don’t you have that you would like?
So in order for my answer to make sense, I need to explain what the R&D process is at our organization. It used to be discovery and development. But today, it’s discovery, development, and commercialization. There’s an increasing emphasis on taking what you learn and turning that into something that’s positive or helpful in our society. So how do you take an idea and bring it to an economic outcome. When I think about the R&D process, there are two needs that are in the top of my mind. No. 1 is we need better tools to help us select from the unbelievable wealth of information out there.
When you go and search for something, or when you create a database, you’ve got all this information, and it explodes. It seems like it explodes every month. There’s more and more and more. How do you mine that and get out of that what you’re looking for? We need better tools to do that. That would help to get the appropriate information quickly and this would translate into speeding projects along. We also need more entrepreneurs to take our ideas and run with them. We get criticized a great deal across the US because there’s a thought out there that universities don’t know how to transfer technology.
And I guarantee you if you look at the intellectual property portfolios of all universities, there are some outstanding things that could be commercialized if we had the entrepreneurs to pick the idea up and run with it. So, I think entrepreneurial development, getting people into the mindset of starting their own company, taking risks when they’re younger, would help us bring a lot of our technology to fruition quicker.
How global is your organization, with regard to industry partners, clients, and suppliers?
We do quite a bit. We have collaborations with Russia, France, Germany, and China just to name some. We’ve just recently opened a University of Dayton China Institute in the Suzhou Industrial Park. And we’d like to do more, but with a significant amount of work being funded by the Department of Defense, we must be very careful in what we do and how we do it. We must ensure that we’re honoring export control guidelines, ITAR, EAR, whatever there is out there. When our faculty, students, and researchers visit these countries, we take extra measures to ensure we are complying directly with what the United States expects.
But the international collaborations that we develop are essential to our growth because people think differently about things across the world. And what we think might be the hot technology items may not be the hot technology item in Russia or in China. That kind of exposure and experience to interchange ideas with people of different perspectives helps us understand where the world is going. We value the idea of international collaboration, but we approach it very deliberately and very careful.
How do you deal with the rapidly changing face of intellectual property? How do you find help/partners for development without risking your IP?
I think flexibility is the key word here. Of course, universities, by virtue of the Bayh-Dole Act, authored by Birch Bayh and Bob Dole, wasn’t that a republican and a democrat working together? Oh my, what a concept. However, by virtue of the Bayh-Dole Act, universities get to lay claim to intellectual property that is actually accrued from using federal funds for research and development. And it used to be, and some universities are still this way, that the university wants to claim all of the rights to everything. Well, at Dayton about 10 years ago, we changed that. We said that doesn’t work anymore. And it doesn’t work anymore. And so when a company or a business comes to us, and they want to do a joint research project, we look at who is bringing the IP into the project. If the company has the original idea, and they’ve got a lot of great concepts about how to develop it out, and they’re bringing all the money, well, of course they should own the IP. We will always ask for rights to the IP in their non-traditional markets. If we’re bringing a lot of the IP, it’s a different negotiation. But it’s not about the university owning everything anymore. And when you do that, you shut down the opportunity to get your technology and some really great stuff out into the marketplace. So flexibility is a key to us.
Everything is a negotiation. If we’re entering into a research project that we think has some great economic potential as an outcome, we try to select a couple of business partners or industries to sit down with and have an honest discussion early on about IP, try to forge agreements with them, and quite frankly, once our researchers get an idea in their minds about what that end product might be, it speeds the process. It actually speeds the process in terms of reaching an end point, in reaching a product development idea. And so it’s all good, and it’s about market pull, and it’s about forging a good negotiation with a partner, and you need to be flexible.
How do governmental rules and regulations affect your approach to R&D? What restrictions play the biggest role in your field of research, and how have you met the challenge of meeting them?
Individual conflict of interest, organizational conflict of interest, EPA, EAR, ITAR, military critical technologies list, IRB, animal care and use, RCR, Office of Management and Budget, A133… these are only a partial list of things that we must deal with on a daily basis. I mean, I can go on and on and on. And so the issue is that compliance is there. We have to deal with it. What are the challenges? There are many. It’s not just adding a person or two; you’ve got to create new departments to make sure that you’re not in violation every time we turn around.
You ask how would it be if we didn’t have compliances and regulations to deal with? I can’t even remember what it was like to do R&D without all these compliance requirements. I can tell you it was a lot easy and simpler when these requirements weren’t in place. The bottom line for me is that we have all these things that we need to comply with because we receive money from the federal government. And there’s no choice in the matter. And the outcome is not how it affects R&D but how it affects our cost structure. It adds so much cost to our R&D financial picture that it’s not even funny anymore. You must add manpower to deal with this.
That all costs money and that raises overhead rates. Everybody loses. If we could make compliance simpler and more direct, it would be just a breath of fresh air. But to give you specific examples, there are so many. I don’t know which one to pick out. The most recent one is that the National Science Foundation and the NIH have developed Responsible Conduct of Research. It’s called RCR. And now, we have to verify that individuals are receiving training. If they have an NSF grant or an NIH grant, we have to certify that these folks have been trained in conflict of interest, export control, on and on and on.
I’ve had to create another training scenario for my individuals in the organization to make sure that when they receive money from NSF or NIH that they’ve been trained in these matters. So, it’s a cost nightmare. But we’re living with it. We have to deal with it.
How is your organization involved with carbon sequestration?
As a university and a research institute, we’re doing all the things people have already talked about. It’s important to do it. I think that you’ll hear people diss climate change, but the fact is it’s happening. I think the controversy is around what part does man contribute to that. It doesn’t matter what part we contributes to climate change. The right thing to do is to try to reduce the part that we do to contribute to it. Internally, our customers that we do work for are looking more and more towards alternative energy solutions. But specifically with carbon reduction, we have a very large multimillion dollar effort in developing strains of algae that eat the most carbon dioxide.
And so we’re working hard at that, and we’ve developed stackable units. These algae that we’re developing can consume upwards of 25% percent of the carbon dioxide being emitted by producers. And when they’re fat and ready to harvest, we take the algae, and we squeeze the oil out of it, and we can burn the residue. So it’s a very nice process. So that’s one of the things that we’re doing. We’ve also have projects in wind energy, solar cell efficiency, things of that nature.
Describe the funding environment at your organization. Has funding increased, decreased? What are the prospects for the next year?
Actually, it’s not a bad story for UD and UDRI. In the last 10 years, we’ve gone from about $38 million in annual research funding to over $90 million. So our growth has been deliberate and very robust. In terms of total researchers employed, over the last year, we went from about 400 to about 433 total researchers in the Research Institute. That’s in addition to the faculty at the university.
Those 433 people do full time research 40, 50, or 60 hours a week. Whatever it takes to get it done for our customers. And they’re complimented by the faculty researchers in the specific disciplines. When I look at the total number of people at the university that are working on sponsored research dollars, it’s almost 800 people. So, we haven’t seen a decrease in research funding. And I think most of that is owed to the fact that I have full time people out there looking every day for opportunities. And they’re targeting specific customers. I don’t have a centralized business development organization in the Research Institute, but rather dozens of individuals targeting opportunities associated with their specific technical expertise.
These individuals are really good and in addition to their technical competence, they have good interpersonal skills which enable them to sell technologies and programs to customers. So the big thing on the horizon is government sequestration. We’re very nervous about that and how it could impact our future business. And so we’ve developed obvious responses to medium and really crazy kinds of cuts. And we’re hoping we don’t have to implement those because it would be just a sad thing. It would ruin, I think, a lot of continuity of really important research efforts right now.
So we’re watching that very closely, and praying it doesn’t happen. But we have plans in place in case it does. Even if sequestration goes away, there will be cuts in federal spending that will need to be dealt with.
What recent scientific breakthrough made you say ‘Wow’? And why did it?
McCabe: Nanotechnology is not new anymore, but the application of nanomaterials to conventional bulk materials has unlimited potential. And we are incorporating nanomaterials technology now into polymers and composites and all sorts of things and finding out what a small amount of nano means to a big material. It’s an incredible area of discovery for us. Self- directed assembly of molecules has been unbelievably successful. But to me, the biggest thing that got my attention was the ability now of researchers to take an animal or human skin cells and turn them into ploripotent stem cells, embryonic-like stem cells.
And if that process can be developed to the point where it can be done with reproducibility, you can’t imagine the breakthrough that’s going to mean in medicine. To be able to take a skin cell and make it act like an embryonic stem cell is going to be an incredible thing for everybody’s future. To me, that’s wow.