Innovation Ecosystem

The Behr facts when it comes to industry engagement

Daniel Behr, Brown’s new director of industry engagement and commercial venturing, seeks to change the paradigm around translating research into products and services

Photograph by Richard Asinof

Daniel Behr, the executive director of the Office of Industry Engagement and Commercial Venturing at Brown University, talked recently about this plans to change the paradigm of industry engagement.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/11/17
Daniel Behr, the new executive director of the Brown University Office of Industry Engagement and Commercial Venturing, described his plans to change the paradigm around commercialization and industry engagement at the school.
How does the strategy outlined by Behr fit in with the new emphasis on translational research being championed by Dr. Jack Elias, the dean of the medical school? How does the proposed merger of CVS and Aetna open up new kinds of collaborative opportunities in the health innovation sector? How does public health research, with its focus on better health outcomes rather than new products, fit into the mix? How will the potential new innovation campuses play in the sandbox as a component of industry engagement?
When asked about his familiarity with health equity zones or neighborhood health stations, Behr told ConvergenceRI he had not heard about either, indicative perhaps of the silos that exist within the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island. In turn, when Brown University President Christina Paxson talked with American University President Sylvia M. Burwell on Nov. 30 about the legacy of the health care reform under the Affordable Care Act, neither health equity zones or neighborhood health stations were discussed as an alternative vision of community-based health enterprises.
There appears to be a knowledge gap when it comes what is happening on the ground in health care in Rhode Island, with no easy way to break down the silos between corporate and community desires.

PROVIDENCE – When it comes to technology ventures, translational research and licensing of new technology products, Brown University is shaking things up.

Daniel Behr, the executive director of the Office of Industry Engagement and Commercial Venturing, formerly known as the Technology Ventures Office, explained his new approach to how Brown will engage with industry and support what he described as commercial venturing at a recent MedMates After Hours gathering on Nov. 28 at the Brown University School of Professional Studies.

Behr began work in July; Brown University President Christina Paxson singled out Behr for praise during a one-on-interview with ConvergenceRI in late October as being the point person in developing a more coordinated approach to industry engagement. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below, “One on one with Brown University President Christina Paxson.”]

“If you look across the university, we actually have a substantial [number of] corporate and industrial partnerships, they are scattered across numerous departments, in engineering, in computer science. There is a long list of industry partners. What those do is to create potential job opportunities for our students,” Paxson explained.

“We have not embedded a firm, as URI had done, but with the right partner, that’s something we would be delighted to consider,” she continued.

“Our new executive director of corporate relations, Daniel Behr, is working to help Brown to have a more coordinated approach with corporate and industry partners.”

Creating a new paradigm
The title of Behr’s presentation at the MedMates event was: “Implementing a new paradigm for industry engagement and technology commercialization at Brown.” One of the goals is to accelerate the flow of innovations from lab to market. About 30 people attended the talk, many of whom were long-time members of MedMates.

Behr brings to the job more than 30 years of experience in the innovation ecosystem as an entrepreneur, a venture investor, and director of business development at Harvard University. Most recently, Behr served as president and CEO of SLIPS Technologies, a venture-funded Harvard spinoff commercializing advanced materials and coatings. He was also a co-founder of Rediscovery Life Sciences, a drug development firm focused on drug repurposing.

In his role as a venture investor, he was a co-founder and senior vice president of Access BridgeGap Ventures and director of technology ventures at Allied Minds. Behr also served as a senior business strategy consultant at Bain & Co.

Why Brown?
In explaining his decision to come to Brown University, Behr said he had developed a real admiration for Brown over the years.

“If everything I’ve done has a common thread, it’s about moving innovation to the market,” he said. “I’ve gotten interested in how to optimize that process. So, when the opportunity came up at Brown, to do something different here, I jumped at it.”

It was not by accident, Behr continued, that the former technology ventures office was re-branded to become the Office of Industry Engagement & Commercial Venturing.

“The truth is that the traditional tech transfer paradigm just doesn’t work; a lot of universities are realizing that now,” Behr said.

Technology transfer is a relatively new business model, Behr said, delving into the history of university involvement in such endeavors. In the beginning, the technology transfer offices, he explained, were usually staffed by scientists and patent attorneys, because the idea was, “We’re just going to file patents and try like crazy to make sure our rights are protected.”

Some 30 years later, Behr continued, universities have become a lot more sophisticated about realizing that they needed to become more engaged, more proactive, with industry.

New ways of thinking

For Behr, there was no point in looking at tech transfer as a profit center for the university. “We’re trying to change that mindset at Brown,” he said. “Essentially, we’re a service organization.”

Instead of focusing on just filing patents and licensing intellectual property, Behr is seeking to have the university facilitate the engagement between itself and commercial enterprises.

Behr likened his office as being similar to  “a marketing organization for a company: we’re really trying to connect Rhode Island products to the commercial world.”

What is Brown’s product, he asked rhetorically, and answered: “It’s the brain trust in the innovation sector.”

Industry engagement, Behr continued, under the new paradigm, “means truly engaging with companies in a very different way, in a strategic manner, where a company and Brown can have a collaboration based around research that is broader than just one colleague.”

As part of that new context, Behr said, the company will be encouraged to challenge the university as a whole.

“The companies can say [to us], here are a number of problems, help solve them,” Behr explained. “When that happens, you start getting ideas that are not what’s on your page or been published.”

The challenges of change
Behr admitted that there were significant challenges in attempting the change the paradigm and engage with industry on a more collaborative fashion.

“We have to learn how to become more user friendly,” Behr said. “We have to overcome the traditional challenges that sometimes prevent companies and universities learning to play nice in the sandbox,” making it easier to collaborate.

Another challenge, Behr continued, is to make an effort to create a narrative that Brown is a unique place. “Commercial venturing is part of our new name, because I wanted to be blatant about the word, commercial,” he said.

In addition, Behr said that he believed that there was too much of an emphasis on startups. “I’m not saying that startups are bad,” he said.

But his office’s first role, he continued, is to try to understand whether the “invention” enables a product or service that matters in the marketplace. “Once we understand what the relevance is in the marketplace, and whether this thing is technically feasible, then we can decide: how do we move it from idea to impact it the market.”

Maybe it’s a startup, Behr added, but maybe it’s working with another company.

A lot to digest
For many of the entrepreneurs in the audience, many of whom have been players in Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem for years, Behr’s presentation was greeted with warm but reserved applause.

The biggest challenge for many of the seasoned entrepreneurs in the room was finding the financial support for the ventures that they have championed, to translate the start up and early stage firms into successful enterprises in the market.

One of the problems, as one entrepreneur now engaged in clinical trials for his medical device told ConvergenceRI after the session, was often finding an investigator at Brown to collaborate with. The entrepreneur expressed some concern about the willingness of Brown investigators to collaborate on projects that were not part of the ongoing research in their labs.


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