Where high-tech capitalism, higher education intersect

March 14, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes | gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Brian Darmody considers himself an entrepreneurial bureaucrat - and he doesn't think that's an oxymoron.

Before he became associate vice president for research and economic development at the University of Maryland, College Park, he worked in state government and hatched the idea of an economic development authority aimed solely at technology more than a decade ago.

That entity, the Maryland Technology Development Corp., known as TEDCO, has become instrumental in funding promising tech start-ups in Maryland.

The 54-year-old Darmody recently spoke with The Baltimore Sun about research, economic development and the work his department does to convert the university's work into new companies and commercial products.

Question: Is there any research that you're excited about or blown away by?

Answer: I don't understand it, but the Quantum Institute - it's a joint institute with NIST [the National Institute of Standards and Technology], and it has involvement with Fort Meade [home of the National Security Agency]. It would be very difficult to break a [computer] code based on quantum principles. It's very interesting research. It's really one of those core fundamental areas of strength for which other quantum physicists around the world will recognize Maryland as a leader.

Q: Is there something in our daily lives that began as research at the university and then became commercialized?

A: Our provost [Nariman Farvardin], he came up with the modem. Do you remember it with the squawking sound? He came up with it.

Q: What has been the trajectory for the university's research in recent years?

A: Over the last five years, our R&D funding went up 30 percent. We created a bioengineering department. People with far higher IQs than I, they talk about big medical breakthroughs coming through bioengineering schools, not necessarily medical schools. The strongest students that come here by far are coming to major in bioengineering. I think that's a precursor of some interesting things.

Q: With the recession, is the university able to take research to market?

A: On the research side, luckily we've been doing better; we'll see if we can keep that pace up. On the commercialization side - this is true nationally - financing has dried up. Angel capital investments are down. I think some technology start-ups are having trouble meeting their licensing payments. Lots of small companies are having trouble meeting payroll, their obligations, etc. That's a worrisome issue.

Q: How much of your research is funded by or conducted with federal agencies?

A: We're very heavily influenced by the federal government. Our research profile is less than most major universities in terms of the amount that comes from the private sector. Most federal research dollars are done on a competitive basis. ... Each principal investigator is like an entrepreneur.

Q: Do you worry that federal money might one day be crimped if policymakers ever decide to address the deficit?

A: Sure, research administrators stay up at night worrying about that. I think the president has signaled a great interest in funding research and development. The percent that each agency's budget devoted to R&D varies quite a bit. It is worrisome, but I think most universities are going to try to increase private-sector funding and foundation funding.

Q: What's the impact of state budget difficulties?

A: It affects some of the economic development programs. If the University Technology Development Fund gets cut, that'll impact commercialization. Furloughing will have a big impact. Just as universities compete for research dollars, they're also competing for human capital. The governor has continued his investments in higher education, and I think Maryland has been able to get by, but there's been a question as to what will the future hold.

Q: How successful has the university been in technology commercialization?

A: That is a good question. College Park makes somewhere around $1.5 million [from patents] every year.

Q: In October, the university opened the first Chinese-sponsored research park in the United States. Why did the university see this type of venture as important?

A: Obviously, we live in a global world, and the state is trying to get foreign direct investment into Maryland. The idea was to have a soft landing so that companies from oversees can come and start an operation in Maryland, and bring some foreign direct investment to these shores.

Q: Many are familiar with the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in the realm of education. But you've been an advocate for STEEM, adding an extra "e" in the term for entrepreneurship. Why?

A: I think that's where economic growth is going to come from: people starting their own companies. How do we embed that in what we do? The knock on this region is that we do very well in academic R&D, but we don't do well enough in creating companies. This isn't easy to say, but we need to embrace a culture where failure is an option. Embrace risk.

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