North Carolina State University: Opening the innovation floodgates to bring promising technologies to market

Published on 25-Jan-2011

Validated on 07 Feb 2014

"What makes the solution so powerful is its ability to go beyond conventional online search methods by factoring context into its results." - Billy Houghteling, executive director, NC State Office of Technology Transfer

Customer:
North Carolina State University

Industry:
Education

Deployment country:
United States

Solution:
Big Data & Analytics, Big Data & Analytics: Operations/Fraud/Threats, Data Warehouse, Enterprise Content Management, Smarter Planet

Smarter Planet:
Smarter Education

Overview

North Carolina State University has made its Office of Technology Transfer far more effective at meeting its core objective: finding ways to license technologies created through research conducted at the university. Using a prototype data search solution developed in conjunction with IBM, NC State has been able to reduce the time needed to find target companies from months to days.

Business need:
One of the main issues faced by the OTT licensing professionals is dealing with the vast number of data sources available to them. Online databases, websites, publications and much more have to be searched to find that proverbial needle in a haystack—the perfect development partner.

Solution:
When the OTT learned of emerging “big data” technology from IBM designed to efficiently mine and analyze vast quantities of data, it embarked on a collaboration with the NC State Center for Innovation Management Studies and the IBM jStart team. The objective was a prototype solution designed to parse the content of thousands of unstructured information sources, perform data and text analytics and produce a focused set of useful results.

Results:
The result is the identification of new commercialization opportunities, with tests yielding a 300 percent increase in the number of candidates.

Benefits:
- Demonstrated increase in the list of potential license partners of 300 percent or more. - Identification of target companies in days instead of four to six months - Examination of far more data sources than had been previously practical, including those in other languages - Increased revenue opportunities for NC State through the licensing of more technology assets - Creation of potential collaborative efforts with other universities

Case Study

Smart is...

Spreading knowledge by identifying companies that can bring NC State’s research to the public, better than ever before.

North Carolina State University has made its Office of Technology Transfer far more effective at meeting its core objective: finding ways to license technologies created through research conducted at the university. Using a prototype data search solution developed in conjunction with IBM, NC State has been able to reduce the time needed to find target companies from months to days. The result is the identification of new commercialization opportunities, with tests yielding a 300 percent increase in the number of candidates.

Smarter education: Digging deeper to spread innovation

Instrumented: Thousands of online information sources including blogs, forums and websites are automatically searched for information on potential license partners.

Interconnected: Sophisticated data and natural-language analysis is performed to identify the most promising candidates in a fraction of the time it took to do so manually.

Intelligent: Powerful, contextual algorithms applied to vast amounts of unstructured data enable NC State to dramatically expand the breadth, depth and quality of its partner searches, finding more and better matches for its technology licensing opportunities.

The essence of a university is more than education—it is the advancement and dissemination of knowledge in all its forms. For leading research institutions like North Carolina State University, part of the university’s mission is fulfilled by the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT).

The function of the OTT is that of a sophisticated matchmaker. Its small staff of highly trained licensing professionals—many of whom have advanced degrees and are technology experts in their own right—seeks to find opportunities to license and ultimately commercialize NC State’s knowledge assets. These are usually promising new technologies or inventions created at the university, covering every field of endeavor from materials to biomedicine and more. “Our goal is to see actual consumer benefit come from the research conducted at NC State,” says Billy Houghteling, executive director of the OTT.

Constraints call for faster action
The six licensing professionals in the NC State OTT are very good at what they do. Today, over 100 products in the marketplace are based on work done at NC State.

Those successes represent the cream of the crop. Each year, more than 150 new developments come in to the OTT, to add to the university’s store of approximately 3,000 technology assets. Each is reviewed by one of the staff, and the most promising are pursued in depth. The professional assigned to the offering works to become a subject matter expert on the technology, then starts looking for companies that might be interested in licensing, developing and marketing it.

“We need to find the optimal partner for each case,” Houghteling says. “This can be difficult and challenging, because the market opportunities for any given asset are not always clear. It’s a complex triage process; we need to not only understand the technology itself, but also its commercial potential. And then we need to find the partner that can realize that potential effectively. It goes back to our purpose… it’s not just to license, but to see success in the marketplace.”

The process often takes from four to six months. Given the volume of new technologies being submitted to the OTT and the size of the staff, it can be virtually impossible for the office to keep pace. Added to this heavy workload is ongoing financial pressure brought about by a difficult economic climate. As a state institution, the university is facing austere times and the extra revenue brought in by technology licensing is of great benefit.

Swimming in a sea of data
One of the main issues faced by the OTT licensing professionals is dealing with the vast number of data sources available to them. Online databases, websites, publications and much more have to be searched to find that proverbial needle in a haystack—the perfect development partner. “This can be a truly daunting challenge,” says Houghteling. “It’s just not practical for us to search every possible source of information.”

For example, a great deal of valuable information about the marketplace and potential development partners can be found in the myriad reports and databases provided by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Unfortunately, the potential return on the time it takes to find the right places to look is so low that it’s not practical to dig very deep.

The result is that good opportunities may go by the wayside. Ironically, the OTT professionals are fully capable and qualified to find them; they simply don’t have the time or resources to uncover those potential partners. “What we really need is analytics to help us,” Houghteling notes. “With the right tools, we can make that part of the process a great deal more efficient, which translates directly to more opportunities to see university research reach the marketplace.”


The inside story: Getting there
The solution that has transformed how the NC State OTT finds development partners is a case of true serendipity. A graduate student, not affiliated with the office, was doing an internship at IBM and became aware of new “big data” technology that could be used to mine and interpret vast amounts of unstructured data.
The student found the technology intriguing and brought it to the attention of colleagues at the NC State Center for Innovation Management Studies (CIMS). The potential to address the OTT’s challenges soon became apparent. “Naturally we’re always interested in ways to use technology in beneficial ways; that’s our reason for being,” says Billy Houghteling. “While we weren’t specifically looking for a way to improve our efficiency at the time, when we learned about the IBM technology we saw a clear opportunity and didn’t hesitate—we jumped on it. In a way, we actually used our core competency of finding real-world applications for promising technology to solve our own business challenge.”
Contact was made with the IBM jStart™ organization, where the grad student had been an intern. IBM jStart is a small, agile and highly skilled team within IBM that is focused on developing emerging software technologies that have commercial potential—a mission not unlike that of the NC State OTT.
NC State worked to formulate the solution and teamed with IBM to bring it to fruition. “The collaborative relationship we’ve built between OTT, CIMS and IBM epitomizes why we exist,” says Houghteling. “This is a perfect example of taking promising technology and creating real-world benefit by applying it in a new and creative way.”

Building a better mining tool
When the OTT learned of emerging “big data” technology from IBM designed to efficiently mine and analyze vast quantities of data, it embarked on a collaboration with the NC State Center for Innovation Management Studies and the IBM jStart team. The objective was a prototype solution designed to parse the content of thousands of unstructured information sources, perform data and text analytics and produce a focused set of useful results.

“We had a very clearly defined set of requirements,” Houghteling states. “Speed, of course, since that was a key challenge. But equally important was utility; speed is nothing if the answers are not useful to the licensing professional, so the output needed to be easily consumed and relevant; free of clutter and unrelated leads. The system also had to be user-friendly, to reduce workload. And of course, it had to produce better results than we could achieve on our own.”

The solution is based on three IBM offerings. Search and processing are accomplished using a combination of the IBM Content Analytics text-aware analysis tool and the IBM LanguageWare® linguistics platform, which allows more robust searching using natural terminology as well as non-English languages. IBM BigSheets, a part of IBM Insights Express, assembles the information for analysis. BigSheets is a spreadsheet-like information management tool capable of efficiently handling petabytes of data from diverse sources.

OTT and CIMS worked together to develop search algorithms, and also provided libraries of relevant terminology that are used by the system as search terms. This vocabulary is the natural byproduct of the research process undertaken by OTT licensing professionals in the course of becoming familiar with new technologies. “This vocabulary represents a valuable knowledge resource,” Houghteling notes. “The more exposure our staff gets to new technology, the more extensive that knowledge becomes. But in a way, it’s locked up and not usable by others. The beauty of this approach is that as we build these libraries, they are both immediately useful to all and remain intact for the future.”

“What makes the solution so powerful is its ability to go beyond conventional online search methods by factoring context into its results,” Houghteling says. “If you know what you’re looking for, search is a relatively straightforward process; we all do it every day with conventional search engines. What makes this solution special is that it is very good at delivering relevant results when you don’t know quite how to ask the question. It cuts through the noise very effectively.”

Speed is the name of the game
To determine whether the system would prove to be truly useful, the team performed a pilot test. Two promising technologies that the OTT had been unable to find potential licensees for were chosen. Sure enough, potential partners for both were soon identified, and negotiations are underway to license the assets.

“I should emphasize that the system doesn’t just hand us the perfect candidate,” Houghteling says. “What the solution does—and does successfully—is perform triage much faster and more effectively than we ever could. It identified the 10 to 15 candidates we had found using traditional methods, but also delivered 25 more we hadn’t been aware of. The expertise of our licensing professionals is still an essential part of the process.” The professionals’ skill also helps improve the system, for example, by fine-tuning the search algorithms to identify key individuals within target companies. In this way, it represents a blending of human capabilities with technology to produce better results than either could individually.

Finding the same candidates as the manual search demonstrated that the technology works; essentially tripling the pool and conclusively proving its value. More importantly, the primary goal of increased speed has also been achieved. What had taken four to six months can now be done in just a few days.

Looking ahead to a collaborative future
The promise of applying next-generation text analytics in the OTT’s search for commercialization opportunities is clear. Yet it holds even greater potential, according to Houghteling.

“We can use this technology in other ways to help further not only our mission, but that of other institutions,” he says. “For example, we could use it to find opportunities to collaborate among universities, bundling related or complementary technologies and going to market together. There’s no reason we have to approach this on our own. There’s a great deal of potential for partnership that can prove beneficial to society as a whole.”


Solution components:

Software
  • IBM Content Analytics
  • IBM LanguageWare®
  • IBM Insights Express

Resources
  • IBM jStart™ Team


For more information

To learn more about how IBM can help you leverage vast amounts of data to create new opportunity, contact your IBM sales representative or IBM Business Partner.
Visit us at:

ibm.com/smarterplanet/education

ibm.com/jstart

Products and services used

IBM products and services that were used in this case study.

Software:
Content Analytics

Legal Information

© Copyright IBM Corporation 2011 IBM Corporation 1 New Orchard Road Armonk, NY 10504 U.S.A. Produced in the United States of America January 2011 All Rights Reserved IBM, the IBM logo, ibm.com, Let's Build A Smarter Planet, Smarter Planet, the planet icons, jStart and LanguageWare are trademarks of International Business Machines Corporation, registered in many jurisdictions worldwide. Other product and service names might be trademarks of IBM or other companies. A current list of IBM trademarks is available on the web at ibm.com/legal/copytrade.shtml This case study illustrates how one IBM customer uses IBM products. There is no guarantee of comparable results. References in this publication to IBM products or services do not imply that IBM intends to make them available in all countries in which IBM operates. ODC03193-USEN-00