University looks to cultivate private research partnerships

The University is in talks with about 40 companies to pull in more research dollars from corporations, a year after hiring its first industry research specialist.

The research partnerships would increase cash flow as GW tries to grow its research prowess but faces an evaporating pool of federal research funds.

But research funding has barely budged after the hire of its industry research specialist, Tom Russo, who said it will start to tick up as GW forms big business partnerships. GW earned only about $4 million worth of direct or indirect research money from companies over the last fiscal year, 2 percent of the total research funds pool and below many competitor schools.

Two years ago, the University pulled in just $4.4 million from businesses for applied research, according to the National Science Foundation. The office declined to provide the amount of money earned from industry in fiscal year 2011.

The University and the engineering school are relying on a barrage of fundraising to pay for the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall, and need to look for other ways to fund projects as the potential for federal fundraising diminishes due to the country’s budget hole and looming fiscal cliff.

GW is looking to raise $100 million for the new science hall, and it also must ensure that the nearly 40 new engineering professors have enough sources of funding to capitalize on the state-of-the-art building. It also needs to generate $55 million in indirect cost recoveries from research projects to fund the building.

Russo said in his first year, he focused on meeting with researchers to match their interests with corporate suitors, a “pollination” process of trying to build the enterprise almost from scratch.

“I don’t think you should just go out there and ask a company for money. There has to be mutual interest,” Russo said. “That’s why I’m laying the seeds now.”

GW also benefitted from industry ties more indirectly, from equipment donations and educational partnerships, Russo said.

Schools that GW considers its peers, like New York and Vanderbilt universities, took in similar rates of industry dollars, but schools like Tufts, Miami and University of Southern California counted 6 to 8 percent industry dollars.

Duke University, another comparable school, generated a quarter of its research and development funding from businesses.

Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said coaxing research funds from corporations is complex. It’s “like a date,” he said, with each looking to size up the other’s interests.

Siemens, the German electronics corporation, is one of several engineering companies, like Northrop Grumman and SAIC, that has moved its U.S. headquarters to the area recently.

“It certainly makes it easier to be working with companies that have headquarters and lots of action in the immediate vicinity,” David Dolling, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said.

Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger pegged Siemens in April as a major prospect to support GW’s engineering research, according to Faculty Senate committee minutes. The corporation’s chief executive officer Eric Spiegel has also attended a Board of Trustees retreat, where talks are kept under wraps.

Arturo Pizano, manager of the university collaboration program at Siemens, said it was still too early to pinpoint how much money the corporation could give GW or what projects they would take on together.

He added that the corporation is looking especially hard to link up with universities in its growth areas like cybersecurity, a field GW has also targeted.

“We are thinking about engaging faculty members from GW on specific topics, but we don’t have a detailed plan of action. It’s a little bit early to make any comments or statements,” Pizano said.

Chalupa said Siemens “appears to be very interested in what we have to offer” – including a growing base of young engineering researchers who will move into top facilities when the Science and Engineering Hall opens in 2015.

“But these guys aren’t going to say, ‘We like you, that was a nice dinner, let me write you a check,’ ” Chalupa said.

The University will also meet with representatives from the information technology company IBM next week to discuss potential research collaborations, Russo said. Researchers and biotechnology industry representatives will also meet in January in a “speed dating” event to match up interest, he added.

Before any deal could be made, companies’ legal offices and GW’s Office of the Vice President for Research would need to strike a financial deal and iron out intellectual property rights.

Chalupa stressed that GW’s interests in industry dollars would never top its “obligations to put education primary,” and that it would adhere to its strict conflict of interest policy, which forces full disclosure and bars faculty from working for those companies.

“You have to go with these things with your eyes wide open,” he said.

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