Gary Ostrander is the Vice President of Research at Florida State University. Like his counterpart at FAMU (Dr. Tim Moore), Ostrander is committed to building the research portfolio at the university and finding new partnerships to sustain and accelerate innovation. In this Startup Capital interview, we chat about the nature of research and innovation at the university level, as well as how new research and technology becomes commercialized. To learn more about research at FSU and how entrepreneurs can help capture some of the amazing innovation happening daily at places like Innovation Park, keep reading below.
What has been the role of research in the growth of FSU?
Research impacts FSU in a variety of different ways. First of all, as a professor, it’s my view that the best faculty are the ones who are not just teaching from the textbook, but teaching from actual experience and creating new knowledge. That can give students a better experience.
When I taught biology, because I’m a researcher and had a lab that was researching things that aren’t even in the popular literature yet, I could talk about research and make it relevant. I was able to make it real.
Research, secondarily, is a way to solve many of the world’s problems. We have faculty and students undergoing biomedical research, tackling heart disease and obesity. We also have research on environmental problems. If you have that kind of activity coming out of a university, it raises the prestige of the university and you tend to recruit better students and faculty.
Third, we will often translate research from the bench to the bedside — we’ll make it into a product. Not all research does that; if you’re looking into the Dead Sea Scrolls, you’re probably not going to develop a product, and that’s fine. But research in engineering and the physical sciences and health-related disciplines have opportunities for products to come out of this research.
“The dollars I pay someone doing research in my lab are being spent at grocery stores and restaurants all over the community.”
One of the best examples at Florida State University is the anti-cancer drug Taxol. This drug came from a faculty member: Bob Holton in the Chemistry Department. This drug has literally saved the lives of over a million women, and it’s generated over $352 million in revenue for the university in royalties. We’ve built buildings, we’ve built programs — not just in chemistry, in a lot of different areas.
It’s had a huge impact on the university and it’s also had a huge impact on Tallahassee, because many of the dollars that go to research are supporting the salary of the faculty, staff, and students. Many of those dollars are turning around and being spent in the Tallahassee community. The dollars I pay someone doing research in my lab are being spent at grocery stores and restaurants all over the community, so it has a pretty big impact there as well.
What is the ultimate goal of most of the research conducted at FSU?
I don’t think there is an ultimate goal, per say. I think those of us who are involved in research seek to create new knowledge, to understand an area a little bit better, to be able to articulate a better understanding of what’s happening… You also have folks who are very focused on building products and curing diseases. If I were to use the term “ultimate goal,” I would say learning more, gaining more knowledge, and understanding things better. That’s the objective.
And for research that has the potential to be commercially viable, is there an effort to create an avenue towards productization?
We do a lot of that. I gave you the example of Taxol: that is the single best example of any commercialized research at any university in America. Put this in perspective: it’s over $100 million ahead of Gatorade. We have efforts to aid folks in areas of technology that could ultimately be commercialized.
We have workshops and training and an office that will help you get a patent. We have the Proposal Development Office, and we have a grant program to help fill the gap between research and commercialization. That’s funding that can help researchers flesh out their product after they’re done researching at the university level but before angel investors or venture capitalists are going to be interested in the product. We give them money to help get through.
We do a lot of different things for faculty and staff that are interested in commercializing. We also have a lot of licenses, we bring in revenue from a variety of different products — drugs, computer software… We even have a faculty member who designed a musical pacifier to help premature infants learn to breastfeed. Infants who use this device end up spending a lot less time in the hospital.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs and other people looking to get involved with research and innovation at FSU?
It depends on how they want to get involved. If it’s somebody who has dollars that they want to invest in technology, they can certainly look at companies that have been spun-out by faculty members; they can certainly talk to my office, The Commercialization Office, to see how they can get involved.
Someone that’s part of a company that complements what we’re doing can look at working out a partnership or a licensing agreement. If somebody likes our technology, they can license that technology and then they can do research with it. So we have people that graduate from FSU that license some of our technology and are growing companies around it.
As a university, and certainly in my office, we want to be entrepreneurial. We will work within the constraints that we have as a public institution to come up with creative ways to partner with folks on the outside who want to get involved with what we’re doing.
Are you working with JMI or any other entrepreneurial entities in town?
JMI is another example of a program on campus, Domi Station is another one off-campus. We provide significant funding to Domi Station every year. We’ve also got entrepreneurs in residence at every single college now, so we partner to different extents with a lot of these different programs.
Do you see university research as a keystone for the entrepreneurial community in Tallahassee?
It can be. If one goes around the country looking at recognized centers of entrepreneurial excellence, more often than not there’s a university in the middle of it all. Look at places like Research Triangle Park, which basically grew up around three universities. Look at Silicon valley: you’ve got some wonderful universities in that area. Look at Walton, Colorado, and Austin, Texas.
Tallahassee hasn’t quite gotten to the level that some of these other places have, but that’s certainly a desirable outcome.
How do you think we can accelerate growth from an innovation standpoint? Do you see a lot of research sitting on the shelf, waiting to be productized?
I’m not necessarily going to say that there’s a lot, but there definitely is technology that would benefit from more dollars being invested in it. Tallahassee, ever since I’ve been here, has talked about business incubators, and you’ve already got Domi. But we’ve also talked about wet lab incubators. Some innovation can’t be done at places like Domi because you need a full lab, you’ve got hazardous materials and so forth, so I think that’s a part of it.
Another thing that could be done here is, rather than casting such a broad net to find anybody at all who might be interested in coming to Tallahassee, is to very strategically look at strengths coming out of the universities and colleges. Whether it’s TCC and manufacturing or some of the agriculture stuff going on at FAMU, look at what kind of companies would benefit from having some sort of operation in Innovation Park, for example.
For example, we have the MagLab. One of the big things you do with magnets is imaging, like in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines. Right now we’re doing experiments and developing the technology that will reside in the MRI machines hospitals and clinics will be buying in 20 years.
Instead of looking at muscles and bones and tissues, we’re looking at metabolites from drugs, we’re looking at biochemicals. With current MRIs you’re looking at a macro layer, in twenty years they’ll be watching drugs move through your body in real-time. That’s what we’re developing now.
It seems to me that it would make sense for Siemens and for GE — the companies making these multi-million dollar MRI machines — to think about co-locating a piece of land close to the MagLab and being a part of that.
“A company doesn’t have to initially invest $5 million and build a huge building, there’s collaborations that can be done.”
Over at Innovation Park, we have arguably one of the best wind tunnels in the United States. Our faculty is doing research about jet engine noise. That’s important because at a lot of airports around the world you can’t land a plane after 11:00 pm at night because of the noise over populated areas. You also can’t take off before 6 am in the morning. We’re already working with Boeing, but it would make sense for the people manufacturing those engines, Pratt & Whitney, GE, Rolls Royce, Airbus, etc., to be closer to us.
So what does the community need to do? The community needs to find a way to connect with those kinds of companies and get them to see the kinds of things we’re doing here and come here and partner with us. A company doesn’t have to initially invest $5 million and build a huge building, there’s collaborations that can be done where their scientists work in our labs, and vice versa. That relationship grows organically until you do get to a point, not unlike with Danfoss Turbocor, where it makes sense to build a building in Tallahassee. Danfoss initially formed a relationship with the MagLab, and now they’re building an entire facility here. That’s the kind of partnership Tallahassee needs.
“If a Siemens or a GE or one of those companies suddenly had a small operation here like Danfoss, then you’ve got high paying jobs. That’s what success looks like for me.”
I think you need to have a Rolodex and you need to be going and looking at companies in California and elsewhere to find companies who would be a good fit. California is very expensive and they’re having some financial problems. In Florida we don’t have a State income tax, we have roughly the same weather, and it’s very cheap to live here.There are a whole lot of reasons for a mid-level or a mezzanine-level technology company in California to find Florida very appealing, if it’s packaged the right way.
I would also look at talking to people across the pond. There’s a lot of good technology being developed in places in Greece and in Ireland and other places that are having difficult financial times.
What does success look like for you?
One view that I would offer for success is that we’re able to attract companies here who want to put down roots in Tallahassee that bring high-paying jobs to the community and employ our students. If a Siemens or a GE or one of those companies suddenly had a small operation here like Danfoss, then you’ve got high paying jobs. I’m guessing that some of those jobs are going to graduates who would otherwise leave Tallahassee. That’s what success looks like for me.
For me personally, as the Vice President for Research at Florida State, what that means is more people to collaborate with. It means maybe they hire our students, offer internships, fund some of our research, and support our initiatives. Their staff can partner with our faculty to file new patents and create new inventions. Maybe that technology gets developed and licensed, then that revenue comes back to the university and to the company. As I said at the beginning of the conversation, that money ends up being spent in the community and circulating around locally. It creates more money coming in to the community than leaving it.
Any final thoughts?
There’s no right answer. Being a scientist, and being around engineers all the time, I can tell you, there’s no right answer. Innovation can come from entertainment, from tourism, from anything, but for Tallahassee, I think they’re going to have to pick one area to focus on. It will take some time, but I don’t get the sense that we’ve ever focused on any one area. I’m paid by the State of Florida to develop the research portfolio for FSU and do better, higher quality research. FSU is certainly willing to help in any way we can, but there are people who are more experienced in the business development side who will really need to guide us.
As is the case for many centers of innovation and entrepreneurial activity, Tallahassee’s three centers of higher learning provide a base of talent, innovation, and economic activity. In order to make sure that the Tallahassee entrepreneurial ecosystem is leveraging all available resources, it’s important for the business community to partner with educational institutions to find out what innovations and opportunities exist that can help build prestige for the entire community. Thanks to Dr. Ostrander for giving his perspective, and for his continued support and advocacy for FSU and Tallahassee innovation.