After a lifetime of research, the traditional yields of academia aren’t as lustrous as they once were for Geert Schmid-Schönbein, a UC San Diego bioengineering researcher.

“My dean couldn’t care less if I publish another paper,” he said.

Schmid-Schönbein has spent his whole career understanding processes in cells and the human body.

“I’ve very much enjoyed it. I hope I never have to stop,” he said. “But after a couple of years you ask yourself, ‘So what?’ These things have to find their application.”

That application – and its potential for lucrative returns – is a hot topic in the research community, and carries great relevance for San Diego. Governments invest in innovation in large part to grow jobs. When researchers receive grants, to what extent should they be required to envision business plans and commercial applications for their research?

The question of how scientific discoveries can be harnessed and turned into products or services has been around for decades. A 1980s change to patent rights for federally funded research sparked huge growth in the local economy. Scores of new businesses popped up as a result.

But the commercialization question looms anew in San Diego, where local universities and researchers pull in more than $1 billion in government and private grants yearly. UC San Diego regularly receives among the top 10 highest university funding amounts from the National Science Foundation.

Too often, the emphasis is on the ’R’, said Ruprecht von Buttlar  – “and a very little ‘D’ behind it.”

Von Buttlar is vice president at Connect, a now-international organization founded in San Diego in the 1980s to help researchers and innovators commercialize their ideas.

A local economist projected a couple of years ago that cuts to the University of California system could thwart the foundations of San Diego’s innovation clusters of technology, engineering and biotech. Declining federal funding pushes researchers to get more resourceful, and in some cases, to learn entrepreneurship themselves to take their discoveries to the marketplace. Arguments at the federal level over the merits of science funding center on how many jobs new discoveries can create.

But tying unwieldy research to an economic trajectory is difficult, and has potential to create other problems as it draws boundaries for research.

As grants get more competitive and require more commercial application, “there’s an argument that it stifles innovation, those big steps and those creative thinkers,” said Susan M. Baxter, executive director of a biotech research program at California State University.  “It’s really difficult to measure the implications of that.”

“What should we do?” Baxter asked. “Grow money trees? It’s a really, really hard public policy question.”

‘I Think There’s a See-Saw’

That public policy question is timely.

The challenge of finding commercial returns on investment in research is central to Connect’s global conference this fall. Also this year, the University of California regents approved a new corporate body, Newco, to oversee the selling and licensing of research produced at UCLA. The move sparked some controversy over applying private oversight to publicly funded research.

There must be an important check on the commercialization question, researchers say. World history is full of research discoveries that took decades to be honed and coaxed into a marketable product. How will research be limited if it has to be tethered to a business plan before a scientist even gets cracking?

“Our mission is not to maximize revenues, our mission is to turn the result of the research, which is funded by taxpayers, into useful products and technology to serve the society,” said Alan Paau, former director and vice chancellor for UCSD’s Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Services who now serves in a similar role at Cornell University.

The biotech world shifts between research, development and commercialization regularly, Baxter said.

“I think there’s a see-saw,” she said. “Oh, we need more ‘R’, we need more ‘C’.”

Right now, the emphasis is tilted heavily toward the “C” – commercialization – and the scientific community could lose out by not investing as much in more wide-open research that could lead to discoveries decades from now, Baxter said.

Researchers don’t always know what the practical outcomes of their research are going to be.

“You can’t even see how these things are going to play out,” Baxter said.

‘What Is the Path to Get That Discovery into the Hands of a Patient?’

When he was an assistant professor in the 1980s, Schmid-Schönbein would’ve never predicted he’d be where he is now: working with a group of lay investors on a hypothesis that’s the culmination of his career in research.

Decades of researching disease and inflammation has led him to a hypothesis connected to the role digestive enzymes play in disease, called autodigestion. It’s a divergent path from the popular field of research connected to antioxidants and free radicals.

“We keep discovering that there are all kinds of degrading enzymes that destroy all kinds of good things we actually don’t want to have destroyed,” he said.

But it took decades of “mistakes” to get there, Schmid-Schönbein said.

“In our case it was fortunate that after all these mistakes, we finally came to a hypothesis that seems much more viable,” he said. “And I was able to convince laypeople on the outside to invest. That just happens to be a lucky coincidence.”

The criticism that there’s been years and years of university research being carried out with little return on investment is absolutely justified, Schmid-Schönbein said. Universities can swallow discoveries within its walls.

But his own career is instructive. If he hadn’t had funding and freedom to keep making mistakes, the scientific community would’ve had a shallower pool of the basic science discoveries he was making along the way.

The university hopes to foster more of those “lucky” coincidences and partnerships. Its entrepreneurship center, the William J. von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement, is where Schmid-Schönbein met the investors now looking to test his discoveries and develop technologies for treating shock and acute inflammatory diseases.

And the center’s director, Rosibel Ochoa, said the commercialization question doesn’t have to scare away researchers.

“Most of the research that is being conducted is trying to address a problem somehow,” said Ochoa. “Even though you are in the very early stages of the discovery, or the learning process, you should always have in mind, ‘If I’m successful, what is the path to get that discovery into the hands of a patient?’”

Finding potential markets for his discoveries is exciting, said Schmid-Schönbein. But he’s still got a soft spot for his first love.

“Nothing is more exciting than sitting together with a student who’s just made a discovery,” he said. “It’s electrifying. There are no millions of dollars you can give me that would match that.”

This is part of our Quest to find out more about the innovation economy in San Diego. Here’s a good overview of what we wanted to find out, and check out these highlights from the series.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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