The Valley of Innovation Death has been well documented and is a continuing issue for transitioning basic university research into products that will improve lives. One way that universities and academic research centers are addressing this issue is through proof of concept (POC) funding. POC funds are typically grants that help “de-risk” a technology — helping a technology meet milestones that will increase its potential to be licensed to an existing company or enable the formation of a startup. These milestones can be prototypes, additional data, or other discoveries that will help demonstrate the validity of a technology. POC funds can also identify a technological weakness that is inhibiting further product development.
How are POC funds financed and managed?
There are similarities and differences between POC funds across academic institutions.
- Usually, universities and academic research centers fund and facilitate their own POC programs. Some funds, such as the MSU ADVANCE GRANT Proof-of-Concept Fund and JHU’s various POC funds are funded through partnerships with government, corporations, philanthropists, and other non-profit entities
- POC grants are typically between $50-$150K per project with multiple projects being funded each year. This funding amount finances the experiments needed to meet specific milestones to advance the technology for commercialization.
- Most funds utilize an external advisory board to review the applications and determine which grants will be funded. These advisory boards are typically comprised of individuals with industry, venture capital, or entrepreneurial experience who can help identify the next steps needed for the technology to be commercialized.
What else can POC programs offer participants?
These POC programs are not just about the funding. Aligning with a university’s educational mission, they offer various training components that help faculty and students understand the commercialization process and what is needed to take their technology across the Valley of Innovation Death. University of Delaware Blue Hen POC Fund, UC Davis Venture Catalyst Programs, and UC Boulder Lab Venture Challenge offer structured entrepreneurial training, while University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus SPARK I REACH Awards, which is modeled after the SPARK program at Stanford, provides weekly specific education seminars for program participants. Yale Blavatnik Fellowships allow for scientists to develop entrepreneurship skills while creating life science startups, and Northwestern NewCures helps faculty develop a pitch deck for their technologies. Rutgers TechAdvance provides a Senior TechAdvance Fellowship which educates graduate students about technology commercialization. UCLA Innovation Fund, WARF Accelerator, UIC Proof of Concept Award, and UC Boulder Lab Venture Challenge also utilize pitch days to highlight their technologies as well as teach participating teams vital communication skills.
Other funds provide additional support to their awardees to aid their technology commercialization. Funds such as Mount Sinai i3 Accelerator and Northwestern NewCures support projects requiring services from outside third-party organizations, such as CROs. UCLA Innovation Fund provides project management services while Harvard Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus SPARK Awards, and the WARF Accelerator all have a pool of mentors that acts as a hands-on advisory team to the faculty. These are just a few examples to summarize the tremendous number of services POC funds provide their faculty and students.
What impact do POC funds have?
These funds have a direct impact on the entrepreneurial and economic development efforts of the university. Many of the funded projects lead to new startups being launched or technology licensed to existing companies. Additionally, the funding and support from POC programs help attract follow-on funding either as additional grants such as the STTR/SBIR federal funding or venture funding for a startup. When a local startup is formed based on these technologies, that could lead to job creation in the local or state ecosystem. Here is a list of some universities that highlight their POC fund’s impact:
- UIUC IPOC Fund
- NCSU Chancellor’s Innovation Fund
- OSU Accelerator Awards
- UVA Proof of Concept Programs
- Harvard Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator
- UC Davis Venture Catalyst Programs
- UIC Proof of Concept Award
- UC Boulder Lab Venture Challenge
Additionally, POC funds have been leveraged during this unprecedented time to help advance technologies in the fight against COVID-19. Some examples are
- UVA Coulter Translational Research Partnership
- Rutgers HealthAdvance
- MSU ADVANCE GRANT
Some universities even created separate POC funds for COVID like OHSU.
POC funds are a tool in the arsenal to address the Valley of Innovation Death for university technologies. These funds provide critical funding at a time in a technology’s lifeline when there are few other sources. These funds are not just about the money — they educate faculty and students on how to further develop their technologies for the next commercialization milestone while also providing services to help them reach those inflection points. These funds continue to grow and optimize their programs and are a part of university technology success stories.