Columbia Technology Ventures Ignites Innovation Across the University

Georgette Jasen
June 06, 2018

Sapience Therapeutics is developing drugs to fight two deadly forms of cancer. Epibone has technology to grow custom bone grafts from a patient’s stem cells. Lumiode specializes in ultra-bright displays for augmented reality and other applications. And Vidrovr has a tool for searching video on the internet.

These are just a few of the innovative startups using research from Columbia’s many laboratories and nurtured by Columbia Technology Ventures, sometimes known as CTV.

“When faculty and graduate students come up with new scientific inventions—therapies, diagnostics, medical devices, robotics, clean energy, cyber security, almost any kind of science done at a university—it’s our role to work with them and help bring those inventions into the market to become products and services that save or improve people’s lives,” said Orin Herskowitz, CTV’s executive director and senior vice president for intellectual property and technology transfer.

Columbia Technology Ventures was founded in 1982, shortly after Congress passed legislation mandating that universities retain title to ground-breaking research developed with federal funding, seek patents for those inventions and license those patents to industry and startups. Since Herskowitz came to Columbia in 2006, the tech ventures office has grown exponentially, helping to create 20 to 25 startups annually compared with five or six a decade ago. Each year it evaluates more than 350 innovations from faculty, students and researchers working in a Columbia lab for potential commercialization, including patents and licensing deals.

Technology Ventures works with faculty across Columbia’s campuses to identify new scientific breakthroughs. Once they find an invention with significant commercial potential, the principal investigator is paired with a CTV licensing expert, who stays in touch to determine when the invention can be patented and licensed or presented to investors for a startup. Some researchers contact the tech ventures office with potential ideas.

“It is a true partnership between the academic research faculty, the investment community and our office,” said Ofra Weinberger, Columbia Technology Ventures’ director of licensing. “We take on much of the brainstorming, the marketing, looking for the best partners and bringing in entrepreneurs so our faculty members and investigators can be better informed about the needs and pressures of the marketplace.”

In addition to traditional licensing efforts, Columbia runs or co-runs five “lab-to-market accelerators”—three in life sciences, one in clean energy and another in media and communications technology—giving inventors access to industry mentors and some funding as they learn about starting a company, pitching to investors and proving that their product works. The clean energy program is a New York State-funded collaboration with Brookhaven National Laboratory, City University of New York, Cornell Tech, New York University and Stony Brook University. NYU and the City of New York are participants with Columbia in the media technology program.

With an idea for a video-search technology, Joe Ellis and Dan Mozoroff, engineering graduate students who in 2014 took the “Intellectual Property for Entrepreneurs” class that Herskowitz teaches at Columbia, launched the startup Vidrovr after going through the New York Media Lab Combine Program—a media and communications accelerator. “They were able to prove out their idea, see how it worked and, because of what they did in the program ended up finding a successful business model,” said Herskowitz, “It’s one of the most exciting startups we’ve had in recent years.”

CTV’s executives-in-residence program brings entrepreneurs, industry executives and venture capitalists to Columbia to learn about what’s being developed, offer advice and sometimes help create new startups. One of those entrepreneurs, Barry Kappel, was fascinated to learn about research from the lab of Professor Lloyd A. Greene targeting glioblastoma, a deadly form of brain cancer, and formed Sapience, where Kappel is now CEO.

Many of the Columbia startups remain in the New York area. Epibone, which uses technology developed in the biomedical engineering lab of University Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, is based in Brooklyn. Lumiode, using technology Vincent Lee helped develop while completing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, leases office space near Columbia in Harlem.

In addition, CTV works closely with other entrepreneurship organizations at Columbia, including Columbia Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Design; SEAS Entrepreneurship, and others, to collaborate on programs to help Columbia students and young alumni who are starting companies. “With over 3,000 startups created in the last decade, Columbia entrepreneurs are a major force in every industry” said Richard Witten, founder of Columbia Entrepreneurship. “In the last 12 months alone, Columbia startups have raised $4.5 billion. This is a testament to the culture of innovation at Columbia.”

In aggregate, the University awards $2.4 million annually to promising Columbia-founded startups and supports new ventures with mentoring and co-working space, such as the Columbia Startup Lab in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood.

“Columbia has really rallied around the idea of student and faculty entrepreneurship,” said CTV’s Herskowitz. “The different schools and departments, as well as the central administration are working together to create a supportive network for these startups to start and grow and hopefully bring these ideas to society in a much more effective and speedy way.”