Getting to know how KU's technology commercialization team works for you

Split image showing skyline view of KU Medical Center campus on the left and a skyline view of KU's Lawrence campus on the right with a white light bulb icon superimposed on top of the images to symbolize innovation occurring at the University of Kansas.

Q&A with Cliff Michaels, executive director of KUCTC

Cliff MichaelsThe KU Center for Technology Commercialization is KU’s technology transfer office. Their primary role is to support innovation within the KU research community and to enable the effective transfer of discoveries or inventions to another party for further development. They also manage intellectual property protection (patents, copyrights, etc.) for such discoveries and inventions, but their commitment to supporting innovation is larger than that and often involves working with other campus partners and additional activities depending on the stage of the discovery.

Cliff Michaels, who has served as executive director of KUCTC since January 2023, explains how the organization supports KU's mission, helps individual researchers navigate the commercialization process, and stimulates industry and job growth.

How does KUCTC’s work support KU’s mission?

KU’s mission includes educating leaders, building healthy communities, and making discoveries that change the world. That last piece aligns nicely with the overall mission of KUCTC. Commercialization, productization and technology transfer are others ways for society to benefit from the talents, discoveries and solutions that are created, nurtured and developed at KU. When there are products, instruments and tools in use that are derived from innovations spun from KU research, it becomes clear in a very tangible way that KU has helped make a difference in the world. KUCTC’s work plays a small but pivotal role in enabling that impact to happen by connecting the dots between research and the partners who take the next steps in moving an innovation from the lab to the marketplace.

In what ways does your team support research at KU?

In the broadest sense, we support research at KU by helping the fruits of research have additional impact. Often in academia, we think about impact through the students we train, the manuscripts we publish and the knowledge we disseminate. Inventions, discoveries and other types of innovations that arise from research can also have impact when partnered with companies and developed into products. So in some ways we help our research community unlock additional potential from their research. In a more concrete way, on the front end we work with our partners in research administration to help negotiate challenging IP clauses in research contracts and answer questions about IP management and policy. On the back end, we manage the protection and licensing of IP coming from research, and we ensure compliance with obligations from grants, contracts and federal regulations that deal with intellectual property.

How does your team support the commercialization process as a whole?

While much of our primary focus is on IP management, IP negotiations and IP transactions (licensing), the commercialization process is confusing; it can be complex, and it is not always linear. IP is a key piece but not the only one that is important. Therefore, we like to think of ourselves as a connecting point for innovators. Aside from KUCTC, we have many partners on our campuses that support commercialization activities. For example, in Lawrence we have customizable business management assistance and services available for entrepreneurs at the KU Innovation Park. At the KU Medical Center, we have our colleagues at the Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation who help advance therapeutics toward the market. Our goal, along with being good stewards of KU IP, is to connect KU innovators to other parts of our innovation ecosystem that may be of help.

What guidance does your team offer to researchers during this process?

Our guidance primarily focuses on what to do if you have made an invention, discovery or other innovation from research activities. We work with researchers to identify how we might go about protecting those intellectual contributions and recommend ways in which additional value could be created. The KUCTC website is a good first stop for guidance, with information relating to most common innovation, intellectual property and commercialization questions. As we look to improve our offerings, we will be enhancing and adding content. We also are making efforts to ensure we are easy to find for researchers on all of our campuses. We work closely with colleagues in research administration and elsewhere at KU, so we want to make certain our researchers can easily find us from all our campus research websites.

While our team is small today, we are committed to being accessible and serving the KU research community. We recognize that sometimes the most useful guidance comes from one-on-one interactions. This means we are available for a discussion whenever someone is ready, even before they have made an invention. We won’t always have the answer, but we do our best to help them navigate. KU researchers should not hesitate to contact us individually or via our general inbox,

What is something you think researchers don’t always realize about intellectual property?

Researchers sometimes forget that the university is the owner of most intellectual property resulting from research. It can often be required as a condition of an award, and it is part of the KU IP policy. There are exceptions, for example, such as scholarly works like manuscripts that are owned by individuals; but otherwise, most inventions made from research conducted at KU are owned by KU.

The other side of that coin, however, is sometimes overlooked: The KU IP policy outlines the sharing of proceeds from commercializing IP. There is wisdom in that policy in that if efforts to commercialize are successful, everyone at KU who helped throughout the process benefits — the inventors, the department, the lab, and the research offices. So our interests in helping move an invention toward commercialization are all aligned.

Why is submitting inventions to KUCTC the first step to protecting one’s ideas?

Disclosing an invention to KUCTC helps us in many ways. Along with documenting critical information we need to be compliant with regulations, it is a key trigger for the rest of our processes. In a more practical sense, it gives our team a starting point for understanding the potential invention so we can provide more meaningful feedback and recommendations for IP protection. This is also a great place to remind folks that publishing an invention, for example in a journal, before we have taken steps to protect any IP creates problems and can impact our ability to pursue a patent. Ideally, the best case is to disclose to us after the invention is made but before you publish or present publicly so that we can work in parallel with your plans.

How does KUCTC support industry and job growth?

Industry’s needs have changed over the years, and whereas many companies used to conduct their own early research and development, they often now look to acquire new products and opportunities from others. Universities are a natural place that industry looks for those new ideas because our researchers are at the forefront of their respective fields and embrace new knowledge and discovery. It really is part of our DNA to be explorers and discoverers. So in one way we support industry because we provide new ideas to their pipelines. Those new ideas also help create the potential for new jobs and, ultimately, new products.

An even more direct example, however, comes from startup creation activities. A discovery or innovation from one of our researchers can be the seed for the creation of an entirely new company. Those startups then create jobs as they grow and scale. What I love about this question is that it gets at the heart of what KUCTC helps enable – impact, from the innovations themselves and the people they can help, all the way through to the jobs that may be supported by advancing these innovations toward being a product.

What do you wish our research community knew more about?

I would love our research community to become more aware in general about the value of intellectual property and feel comfortable with the basic concepts. The flip side is that it is our team’s responsibility to help educate our community about IP. In the coming years, we hope to increase our engagement with the KU research community and offer more opportunities for individuals to learn about IP and working with KUCTC.

What are some highlights or accomplishments of your team you would like to mention?

Anyone who has known KUCTC will recognize that it has been through a great deal of change over the past five to 10 years, with some ups and downs. So our first highlight should be recognizing the team for their continued commitment to KU and our research community. We are lucky to have individuals who aspires to improve. That will come in handy soon as KUCTC embarks on a period of revitalization, change and growth.