MIT Deshpande Center primes the pump for commercial innovation

Entrepreneurial expertise plus small cash grants help research teams advance their ideas and raise $36 million in venture capital.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (October 12, 2005) -- A $50,000 "ignition grant" may not seem like much in a high-tech economy where millions of dollars of venture capital is often seen as the price of admission for scientists hoping to make an impact on society with their discoveries. But the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT, since awarding its first grants three years ago, is already showing that a little bit of help early in the innovation cycle goes a long way toward successful commercialization of academic and scientific research. In fact, it may be the critical difference between success and failure of "the next big thing."

Cambridge biotechnology startup Pervasis Therapeutics' announcement on Sept. 30 that it secured $12 million in additional funding from top-tier venture capital firms was a major milestone on a journey that began in 2002, when a small research team from the laboratories of Profs. Elazer Edelman and Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology applied for and won one of the first Deshpande Center grants. The team used the grant to help demonstrate the possible commercial viability of its research to patients with vascular disease, preparing it for clinical trials. In addition to the financial support, grant winners also tap the Deshpande Center's extensive network of "Catalysts," volunteers from the business community that guide the projects. This non-financial support has been a critical factor enabling researchers to navigate the process of identifying target markets, validating commercial feasibility, and recruiting team members.

Like Pervasis, more than a third of the 44 teams that have won Deshpande Center grants to date are in the process of forming new companies, raising venture capital, or seeking licensing arrangements with established companies for their innovations. The group has raised more than $36 million in private equity so far, above and beyond the initial $4.9 million in Deshpande Center grant funding, to develop and deliver products based on their research. Collectively, they are setting a pattern for faster and more efficient commercialization of academic research. They are pointing toward a solution to the "innovation gap" that has been a cause of frustration and concern not only in the academic world but also to government and private industry.

"Our original vision for the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation was to help MIT researchers make a societal, academic and economic difference with their innovations," said Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande, co-founder of Sycamore Networks and a member of the MIT Corporation Board. Desh and Jaishree Deshpande made the Center possible with an initial $20-million grant in November of 2001. "The tangible success of Pervasis and the other startups that have spun out of our grant program demonstrates the enormous leverage the Center has been able to provide at the earliest stages of the innovation cycle, not only through financial assistance but, more importantly, through knowledge, expertise and personal assistance."

The Deshpande Center awards two kinds of grants: Ignition Grants to research teams that are in the very early stages of determining technical feasibility of breakthrough ideas, and Innovation Grants to teams that have already made significant academic progress but are at the cusp of applying their research to the most promising markets and determining whether to start a company or pursue a license to commercial partners. "Traditionally, this has been the point where many research projects have fallen short because of lack of funding, market input, or other support," notes Professor Charles Cooney, Faculty Director of the Deshpande Center.

The Center supports each team with a structured set of programs and referrals to other resources, including assignment of one or more Catalysts; opportunities for exposure at events and other activities; introductions to entrepreneurs, investors, and customers; and possible participation in the unique "i-Teams" course.

"As the Deshpande Center actively nurtures and promotes individual research projects with commercial potential, it is also defining a process for accelerating innovations and guiding them to important practical applications," said Krisztina Holly, Executive Director of the Center. "In the three years that we have been working with our grant recipients, we have started to see how hands-on assistance from supporters with a broad range of experiences can help academic researchers realize the potential value of their ideas. We are also gratified to see this process successfully applied to innovations in so many fields, ranging from nanotech and new materials to computer science and communications to health and medicine and beyond."

Companies that have spun out of Deshpande Center grant recipient teams and raised capital include:

  1. Beam Power Technology, Cambridge, MA: Low-cost, high performance amplifiers for wireless base stations
  2. Brontes Technologies, Woburn, MA: High-accuracy and high-speed 3D imaging
  3. Myomo, Cambridge, MA: Robotic aids for neurological trauma
  4. Pervasis Therapeutics, Cambridge, MA: Medical therapies integrating biomaterials with cells and drugs
  5. Pufco, Menlo Park, CA: Unclonable keys for authenticating and protecting portable devices
  6. QD vision, Watertown, MA: Next-generation flat panel displays
  7. Sentina, Boston, MA: Sensor management technologies

Holly said the Center's success has enhanced MIT's traditional role as a national leader in driving not only pure scientific research but also in fostering research-driven innovations that have important, practical commercial applications. MIT is known for its innovativeness; it performs over $1 billion in sponsored research, and the Technology Licensing Office reports an average stream of over 500 inventions disclosed, 125 patents issued, and 100 license agreements annually over the last five years.

"The Deshpande Center has taken advantage of this fertile innovation environment to demonstrate that a well-defined process designed to nurture and support innovation can accelerate the migration of ideas from the lab to practical commercial application," Holly said.

About the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation
The Deshpande Center was established to increase the impact of MIT technologies in the marketplace. It serves as a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship by supporting MIT research through grants ranging from $50-250K, a Catalyst Program of volunteers that provide market focus and connections, i-Teams, and other opportunities. Over the first three years, the Deshpande Center has awarded $4.9 million in Ignition and Innovation Grants to 44 projects in a wide range of emerging technologies. So far, nine of these projects have turned into startups, collectively raising over $35M in capital. Founded with an initial donation by Jaishree and Desh Deshpande, the Deshpande Center depends on the financial and professional support of successful alumni, entrepreneurs, and investors to provide a sustainable source of funding for innovative research.