UC rising among downtown universities

Thanks to its new approach to intellectual property and startups, the University of Cincinnati is advancing on the competition faster than ever

An October 2017 Brookings Institution report found that downtown research universities enjoy tremendous advantages because of their proximity to private equity, large corporations and all of the other perks that come with being located near large cities.

The report, “Hidden in plain sight: The oversized impact of downtown universities,” ranked the University of Cincinnati No. 33 overall among downtown research universities, using data from AUTM (formerly Association of University Technical Managers, a nonprofit dedicated to innovation in academia) to track key metrics such as patent disclosures, startups and intellectual property licenses. 

“Research universities located in the downtowns and midtowns of large cities punch above their weight in terms of commercial outcomes,” the introduction to the report states. “They produce more patents (often twice as many), licensing agreements, licensing revenue and startups, given the size of their student populations, than those located in smaller ‘college towns’ and in suburban and rural areas.”

Portrait of a man in a suit and tie

Chief Innovation Officer David J. Adams. Photo/UC Creative Services

UC’s approach to innovation as outlined in the Next Lives Here strategic direction embraces these advantages, benefiting the university, its faculty, staff, students and the region as a whole.  If the Brookings rankings were to be tabulated again today, UC would be ranked No. 27. 

Driving the growth: a 400% increase in startups over the past year, as well as an increase in patent disclosures. Both can be traced back to UC’s Office of Innovation and the 1819 Innovation Hub, where new programs and streamlined processes have greased the wheels of entrepreneurship. 

“It’s funny how things improve when you measure them,” says David J. Adams, UC’s chief innovation officer. “These are good metrics for us as a university, but we’re going to be very proactive in continuing to enhance processes and accelerate opportunities for UC faculty and students.” 

Jason Heikenfeld remembers the first time he saw the Brookings study. It was handed to him by Adams, his new boss, about a week after Heikenfeld joined the newly formed Office of Innovation to lead UC’s commercialization efforts. Adams asked Heikenfeld to start keeping tabs on where UC measured up against other downtown research universities using data from AUTM, the same source the Brookings study had originally used.

400% increase in startups spun out of UC-created intellectual property

“In addition to these rankings challenging us and informing us on our progress, they initially pointed us to aspirational institutions we could quickly learn from,” Heikenfeld says. “Once we absorbed what best practices were, we then made sure we optimized them for UC’s unique strengths and for our shared regional goal of building a thriving innovation district here in uptown.” 

A man sits at a table holding up a small plastic object

Jason Heikenfeld, vice president of operations, Office of Innovation. Photo/UC Creative Services

Two years ago, UC trailed the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Portland State University. Today, UC is ahead of both, as well as the University of New Mexico, which sits at No. 28. Just ahead of UC is the University of Chicago. Adams thinks communication is the key to keeping the momentum going. 

“We’re going to continue to focus on this as an organization,” he says. “We’re being proactive in communicating with existing and new faculty alike, helping to connect them with the talent and resources available at the university and within the community.” 

Adams credits the progress to two things: Venture Lab — the Office of Innovation’s startup pre-accelerator program for UC faculty, students, staff and alumni — and a streamlined intellectual property process that gives faculty more incentive to work with the university. 

We want entrepreneurially minded faculty to understand that we’ve done a tremendous amount to reduce the friction associated with commercializing their intellectual property. - David J. Adams, Chief Innovation Officer
Two women in business attire smiling

Renee Seward, left, and entrepreneur in residence Nancy Koors speak to Venture Lab would-be entrepreneurs about the challenges of launching a startup. Seward is one of several UC faculty members to successfully launch her startup after going through the Venture Lab pre-accelerator program. Photo/UC Creative Services

UC once aimed to retain all rights to intellectual property created by faculty on campus with significant UC resources. That’s a real disincentive to investors who might otherwise be interested in funding a faculty-owned startup or industry who wants to sponsor research here on campus, Adams says. A new express license policy has allowed recent UC startups to launch their startup and start generating revenue in mere months instead of years, with UC collecting a portion of revenue when the  venture succeeds. 

“We want entrepreneurially minded faculty to understand that we’ve done a tremendous amount to reduce the friction associated with commercializing their intellectual property,” Adams says. “You don’t have to go to Silicon Valley. You can make it happen here. We want our faculty and students to achieve great things, and we believe the university will benefit as a result.”

Two men talk to a third man behind a desk. The logo for "Cincinnati Bell Innovation Hub" appears in the background.

The close proximity of industry partners such as Cincinnati Bell (pictured) provides opportunities for faculty, students, staff and alumni to generate interest and support for their business ideas and intellectual properties. Photo/UC Creative Services

Adams wants UC to be a destination for top talent, and not just a stop on their journey. Heikenfeld — himself a serial entrepreneur and a professor of electrical and biomedical engineering — believes what the Office of Innovation is doing will help cement Cincinnati as a global destination for talent and businesses alike. 

“There’s no time to rest on our laurels,” Heikenfeld says. “We’re just starting to tap into our potential at UC. We have more than 46,000 brilliant students, more than $400 million in research and all Bearcats can help us move even faster by letting us know of their innovative ideas so we can connect them with the commercial resources that they need need to succeed.” 


Innovation Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati is classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Commission, is ranked in the National Science Foundation's Top-35 public research universities and secured a spot on Reuter’s World’s Most Innovative Universities list. UC's students and faculty investigate problems and innovate solutions with real-world impact. Next Lives Here.