Impact of innovation

April 6, 2020

This year marked a banner year for technology commercialization at UNT, but it’s only the beginning. Licensing revenues reached a record level, and faculty filed 44 disclosures of inventions and intellectual property with commercial potential in 2019, compared with only 7 in 2015.

More importantly, the culture of innovation at UNT is changing, says Michael Rondelli, associate vice president for innovation and commercialization, who joined UNT in December 2015. UNT researchers are looking at the work in their laboratories in new and creative ways, and technology created here is catching the eye of companies and potential investors.

“Certainly, one of our goals is to generate revenues for both our faculty and the university, but more important is making an impact on our local, state, national and global environments,” Rondelli says. “We want our technology to impact lives. The true value is in the impact we have on our communities.”

In 2019, royalty revenues totaled $425,000 from UNT technology licensed for commercialization.

With this summer’s arrival of Mark McLellan, UNT’s new vice president for research and innovation, UNT is experiencing change that is expected to change its trajectory and make it easier for faculty to pursue innovation. This fall, McLellan has been restructuring the Division of Research and Innovation to be more efficient and effective in processing the often complicated agreements required in both grant funding and commercial licensing, provide better service and grow the research enterprise at the university.

“We want to be highly effective for faculty and to be responsive to their needs,” McLellan says. “We’re focusing on finding solutions. I want to open up faculty to the possibilities of what they can achieve through their work.”

A new unit led by Rondelli will be adding more staff and implementing a new streamlined system for processing contracts aimed at assisting faculty and making working with UNT easier for outside entities. 

“We are categorizing contracts into four major categories based on response time, where the smallest and least risky will be replied back to the external companies in 24 hours and another category in 48-hours, a third category has a 4-day window and then the last category, which is where the company brings its own contract, will have a 12-day turnaround,” Rondelli says. “It’s very different. It allows companies, faculty and their deans to know where we are with each relationship, how to move it ahead and that we are focused on their priorities.”

Rondelli points out that not all intellectual property is a biotech solution or a new high-tech material developed by engineers. 

“We’re going to go after everything from disciplines that range from engineering to merchandising to music,” he says, adding that faculty and staff are developing creative solutions across campus every day. He’s working to help them see ways those ideas can reach a broader audience. 

Additionally, Rondelli’s team is starting to see intellectual property disclosures of educational materials and processes that could help students at other universities.

“We work on a lot of creative works, which may not make a lot of money in the first few years, but they will keep on impacting communities,” he says. “They will grow and grow. The next thing you know, every university is using something we’ve created to help their students.”

Technology developed in university research labs are  owned by the institution, but under UNT policy, the inventor or creator and UNT share equally the royalties earned by commercialization. When commercially viable, a company is sought to help develop the product for the market where it can be used. Royalties are then paid to the university where they can be reinvested into more research and education, as well as to the researcher who invented it. Licensees often sponsor research in the investigator’s lab, and graduate students are often hired by the company when they complete their degrees. It’s a win-win for the university and the inventor.

“We’re trying to be one of the universities that defines the field of university-industry collaborations” Rondelli says, adding that part of successful technology commercialization is creating an atmosphere where researchers see their work from the point of view of companies that might want to develop it.

Rondelli and Steven Tudor, director of licensing who Rondelli brought to UNT in 2017 to tackle intellectual property evaluation and search for potential commercial partners, cite three inventors who have different ways of looking at their research and how it can make it out of the laboratory — chemistry professors Guido Verbeck and Oliver Chyan, and associate professor of criminal justice, Scott Belshaw.

Verbeck holds 7 patents for his inventions, and UNT has licensed a breathalyzer for detecting opioids to Frisco-based InspectIR, with more technology licenses in the works.

“Guido Verbeck is very focused on working with companies, his comfort working with companies allows for sponsored research and commercialization at a fast pace,” Rondelli says.

In 2019, Chyan received $157,000, the largest royalty distribution to date at UNT, for a method to detect flaws in microchips. Rondelli says that not only are more licensees expected for the technology, Chyan’s graduate students are in high-demand with microchip manufacturers.

Belshaw, also the director of the UNT Cyber Forensics Lab, developed a wand to detect credit-card skimmers on gas pumps and a software tool to find out what information has been stolen. He’s also working on creating a user interface, artificial intelligence and database management system to allow better cases against the criminals, stop the fraud and even be able predict where the next skimmers are going to be found.

“Scott Belshaw didn’t have a research agenda that applied to a problem,” Rondelli says. “He saw a problem and created a research agenda to go after that problem.” 

Belshaw says that working with Rondelli in developing his technology has been an outstanding experience.

“I have learned so much about commercializing research and taking my ideas to the next level. The professionalism of Michael Rondelli and his staff is extraordinary,” Belshaw says. “It is clear having Michael and his office helps keep us at a Tier One status.” 

Rondelli hopes these successes will influence more of UNT’s creative community to see new possibilities.

“We want the technology to impact lives,” he says. “It’s important to generate royalties, but the central focus is on making an impact on humans. That’s what we do. Royalties follow from the adoption of our researchers’ creation into products used every day.”