Academic Entrepreneurship: How Kitware Can Help Commercialize Research

January 22, 2018

A singular moment in the practice of commercializing research occurred in the mid-1960s when Gatorade was formulated [1]. Since that time billions of dollars of total revenue, and tens of millions of research dollars have been reaped by the University of Florida. Such successful commercialization of this and many other academically-derived technologies are generating increasing pressure on Universities to commercialize their work. This pressure comes from technology development offices, from students who are convinced that their ideas are paths to self-employment after graduation, a tight funding climate, and the impression that successful research produces successful products. Today, the commercial successes of new technologies such as deep learning and the perceived ease of starting and cashing-in on internet-hosted companies have become powerful lures to pursue the commercialization of nearly any and every innovative idea.

Unfortunately there are significant challenges to creating successful commercial products and process from academic research efforts. To start, there is an inherent tension between the goals of academia (“discover and share knowledge”) and commercialization (“make money”). Moreover the activities and skills required to perform successful research are quite different than those required to run a successful business. Research tends to require longer cycles, with deep thinking and exploration required and rewarded. In contrast, business activities are typically short term in nature, with timely response needed to communicate, market, sell, and react to business opportunities, as well as the day to day demands of HR, legal, and financial activities. So, researchers and their scholarly organizations are often not ideally suited to start or run a commercial venture.

A standard approach to this situation is to “spin off” ventures by licensing IP, transitioning faculty, and/or partnering with entrepreneurs or incubator companies who are up to the task of taking concept to product. Along similar lines, Federally funded programs, such as the US Government’s SBIR/STTR program, are aimed at transforming research concepts into economic activity, and in the case of the STTR require partnering of academics with small commercial firms. Obviously these and other approaches have succeeded, but there is evidence that they are not as effective as expected [2]. For example, it is often difficult to find and partner with entrepreneurs, and research organizations often have unrealistic ideas as to the value of their intellectual property (which translates into unreasonable licensing terms). There is also the impact of walling off potentially commercializable ideas behind IP – such steps often discourage collaboration; can greatly inhibit further technical development; and may stifle teaching, dissemination, and peer review which are critical to advancing academic careers and attaining tenure. Certainly, while some big ideas attract venture funding and licensing revenue, more often than not many excellent yet (apparently) less exciting ideas languish behind IP walls. Indeed a recent study says that for most Universities, patent revenues do not even cover the costs of seven out of eight technology transfer offices [3]. Fortunately there is an alternative to this approach, one that also honors the traditions and advancement opportunities of academia, yet can produce significant revenue streams.

The basic idea is that researchers practice Open Science to ensure that their findings are as widely disseminated as possible, including sharing data, code (methods), and publications; with commercial products following as a natural outcome of a good idea. In particular, open science promotes community involvement which is used to verify ideas, demonstrate their utility, and improve them. Then, due to the large gap between academic utility and industrial implementation, numerous business opportunities exist. Value-added services and adaptations can be (and frequently are) crafted from open ideas to create profitable commercial offerings. Furthermore, the maturation of an idea in an open community lowers risk and the cost of creating a derivative commercial product. The key is to find the right partner to bring the idea to market, and this is where Kitware can help.

As an open source company, Kitware is fully supportive of Open Science, and we routinely work with partners to move research ideas into commercial practice. We offer many widely disseminated scientific computing platforms (e.g., ParaView, 3D Slicer, VTK, ITK, and CMake) with exposure on the order of thousands of downloads per day (per platform). Our business model is based on consulting, support and services, and after nearly 20 years of growth we have demonstrated that the model of mixing Open Science and Commercial Enterprise is profitable and sustainable.

One key component of our success in bridging research and commercial development is that we thrive on collaboration. This includes not only our scientific but also our legal and financial teams who work with our academic, entrepreneurial, and Fortune 100 collaborators to support joint research and commercialization initiatives. The Kitware team also has extensive proposal-writing expertise, with a track record of winning and successfully executing on SBIR/STTR as well as basic research projects.

There are other benefits from this hybrid commercialization approach. Open Science practices ensures broad exposure to research innovations. This exposure then leads into follow on work: further collaborative R&D and associated funding, and commercial consulting revenues as organizations integrate the resulting technologies into their workflow. Such exposure is also correlated with increased citations [4] and therefore research impact. Thus it is possible to build commercial offerings around the products of Open Science and deliver value to paying customers, while at the same time honoring the traditions of scientific research through unfettered distribution of core ideas.

If you are a researcher looking to commercialize your work, we encourage you to look at open approaches. Get your work out there and immediately impact the technical community. Team with open source companies like Kitware to accelerate technical transition and generate follow on revenues to further support your work. If you are interested, we encourage you to visit our Team web pages [5] and identify potential partners, or contact Kitware at to learn more and explore research commercialization opportunities.

[1] Gatorade: The Idea That Launched an Industry.
[2] Survey suggests top 10 reasons university start-ups fail.
[3] Patenting Their Discoveries Does Not Pay Off for Most Universities, A Study Says.
[4] Steve Lawrence, Free online availability substantially increases a paper’s impact.
[5] Kitware Team pages.

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