In yearslong courtship, professors and corporations look to fund research

Media Credit: Photo courtesy of GW Media Relations.
Victor Weedn, chair of the forensic science department, landed $400,000 from PerkinElmer Health Sciences this year to bring top technology to his GW lab.

As corporations like IBM and Intel pour money into developing technologies that use sunlight to run computers and smartphones, that research is increasingly happening in labs like GW’s.

Volker Sorger, an assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering, has spent several years working to convince officials from both companies to host their research in outside labs like his instead of trying to make discoveries within their own walls.

“That’s almost the new business model,” Sorger said.

Professors say they are increasingly trying to connect with corporations, drawing up plans of action after years of stagnant funding from companies. GW has received about $4 million from companies in each of the last two years, though Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa has called it a key area of interest as federal funding fades.

That process takes time, Sorger said. To land his grants, he attended talks hosted by corporate executives, exchanged business cards and eventually went to lunches.

“It’s sort of like dating,” he said. “You get to know each other, you form some kind of an interest.”

Leighton Ku, a professor of public health, said he caught the eye of his current corporate partner through a smaller-scale study about community health centers in Massachusetts. An insurance giant then contacted him about completing a follow-up study with a broader scope.

“It may be that certain organizations or individuals are doing work in an area, and they may think GW is a logical place to have that discussion,” Ku said.

The research office is also relying on the donation from Sumner Redstone’s foundation to the Milken Institute School of Public Health to spur interest in GW’s research. Since the gift, Chalupa has spoken with dean Lynn Goldman about how to attract corporations and foundations by capitalizing on the school’s new momentum.

But there are plenty of things giving researchers and GW pause as they try to push into the corporate world.

For one, the University needs to ensure the research isn’t skewed favorably toward companies. Each partnership is reviewed by the Office of General Counsel and GW’s law offices and researchers must disclose affiliations with private firms each year.

The research office also wants to make sure faculty control the rights to the intellectual property of their innovations, which could bring more cash into the University.

And professors have not always been eager to partner with big-name companies, Chalupa said. He added that faculty are slowly opening up to that type of research, which some have opposed in the past because they feared the private companies just wanted to improve their bottom lines.

“There’s been this kind of attitude by some faculty that we’re selling out. ‘We’re selling out because the company is trying to get its profit line and this is not what we should be doing,’” Chalupa said.

When Assistant Vice President for Industry Research Tom Russo arrived at GW more than two years ago, he remembers having to convince faculty that accepting money from corporations wouldn’t hurt their reputations.

This year, Russo also helped land one of the largest corporate partnerships, $600,000 worth of new equipment and a new faculty position for the forensic sciences department.

Department chair Victor Weedn landed the partnership with PerkinElmer Health Sciences to help build a mass spectrometry lab, which allow forensic scientists to study the molecular makeup of a sample to better identify different types of criminal evidence.

“They made us some very good offers on some instruments,” Weedn said. “We worked out deals that they actually gave us an instrument, donated one to us, and we now have a partnership with them.”

Weedn, who knew the company’s leaders before arriving at GW in 2012, said he worked with the University’s research office to secure the partnership. He added that the type of research the department can now conduct will help boost its chances of attracting other benefactors in the future.

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