The world’s research universities are crucibles of innovation, yet universities face significant challenges when it comes to shepherding their research breakthroughs into the marketplace. It’s a painstaking process–akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Until now, that is. By harnessing the power of Big Data, North Carolina State University and IBM have collaborated to create a highly automated system for matching university-invented technologies to potential business opportunities.
Here’s how it works: NC State officials identify promising inventions that are contained in their research database. Then they launch a search of the Web for pages containing pertinent information–clues that could lead the university to companies that might be interested in licensing its technology and taking it to market. The program uses a handful of sophisticated IBM software tools that were created to handle so-called Big Data challenges–data sets with millions of pieces of information drawn from multiple sources. BigSheets, a specialized search engine, makes it possible to get insights from very large data sets easily and quickly. IBM Cognos Content Analytics focuses on unstructured data, the kind that isn’t stored in formal data bases. And IBM LanguageWare is a text analytics tool that understands the context around words, and is capable of decoding scientific jargon.
The university ran a couple of pilot projects to test the system. One involved new strains of Salmonella that faculty researchers are developing for use in vaccines. It took less than one week to search 1.4 million Web sites, including blogs, social networks, and sites containing scientific papers, and come up with a short list of potential business partners. Using manual search methods, the investigation would likely have taken months–and might not have uncovered some promising leads. “The kind of searches we do are very difficult to to replicate with people,” says Chris Spencer, an emerging technologies strategist in IBM Software Group.
Spencer understands the challenges of university technology transfer first hand. While a graduate student and IT employee at NC State in the 1990s, he developed an online authentication system and then licensed it back from the university and launched a start-up company to commercialize it. The company, Sentri Systems, had a promising start but failed in the big dot-com bust of 2001.
The current project with NC State has got Spencer’s entrepreneurial juices flowing again. IBM and a university-affiliated organization, the Center for Innovation Management Studies (CIMS), are considering marketing the tech transfer search engine to other research universities. There are a lot of needles in those Internet haystacks.