UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes Monthly > December 2000 Search


December 2000

Tech transfer: When's our next home run?

UCAR's new legal services team includes director Meg McClellan and paralegal Kelly Coleman, formerly of ACD. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

It only took one commercially viable project to score more than a half- million dollars in research revenue for UCAR. That project—the tailoring of weather information for new technologies—resulted in the sale of WITI Corp. by the UCAR Foundation to Lifeminders.com. (See the article in the September issue of Staff Notes Monthly.)

The sale breathed new life into the foundation and its work. After two years of decentralization in which tech transfer was left largely to NCAR divisions and UCAR programs, UCAR is now reconsidering the value of a centralized effort. Divisions and programs have been experimenting with ways to transfer our innovations to the private sector while remaining true to our missions of cutting-edge science and not-for- profit service.

To market, to market

As a recipient of federal research dollars, UCAR is not only allowed but encouraged by the Bayh-Dole Act and other legislation to demonstrate progress toward transferring technology we've created to the business world. The law also allows UCAR and similar institutions to profit from such transfers.

The catch is our role as an innovator as opposed to a marketer. Even in the applied-science parts of the institution, people at NCAR and UOP tend to be more excited about pushing the frontiers of science than about the laborious follow-up needed to get products to market and keep them there.

"In tech transfer, we like to do things one time," says RAP's acting director, Rich Wagoner (director Brant Foote is on leave in Argentina through next spring). "We might do two or three versions of a tech transfer, but it's got to have a new challenge associated with it each time."

ATD director Dave Carlson is on the same wavelength. One of ATD's biggest successes of the 1990s was its upgraded dropsonde using Global Positioning System technology. Once the prototype for the GPS sonde was done, ATD licensed it to Vaisala. The company shipped over 4,000 sondes in fiscal year 2000, generating about $150,000 in licensing revenue for ATD, UCAR, and the dropsonde's inventors. "We don't want to be making 5,000 sondes a year [in ATD]," says Dave. "From ATD's point of view, staying out of the manufacturing business is worth it."

If at first . . .

Although she's only been at UCAR for six months, Meg McClellan understands this part of our corporate culture well. As Meg puts it, "we have lots of the R in R&D and very little of the D."

Meg is the new legal expert for UCAR. Housed in the Pearl Street building, she oversees licensing, copyrights, and other aspects of commercial activity for both UCAR and the UCAR Foundation. Along with an extensive background in technology transfer, Meg has experience in contract and employment law and serves as an on-call legal adviser to UCAR, including programs and divisions.

Soon after Meg arrived, she carried out a survey of UCAR and 19 member universities to see how each handled tech transfer. She found that "we were the only one of the 20 institutions that doesn't have a centrally organized technology commercialization group."

UCAR did have such a group until the late 1990s. Up to that point, commercialization efforts had only generated about $250,000 per year in gross revenue for the foundation, with a portion of that returning to UCAR as licensing revenue. Although UCAR had granted the foundation a three-year waiver of UCAR's share of licensing royalties, along with some ongoing subsidies, the bottom line remained weak.

In 1998, Bill Rawson, then completing his tenure as UCAR's vice president for finance and administration, came up with the Rawson Plan. The idea was to disband the technology commercialization group and let the divisions and programs carry out their own licensing, in exchange for a bigger share of the revenue (90%, versus 50% earlier).

How did the Rawson Plan fare? As one would expect, the share of licensing revenue going to divisions and programs has indeed risen. The total for fiscal years 1999 ($195,000) and 2000 ($350,000) was more than half of the entire $947,000 received by UCAR from the onset of commercialization in the mid-1980s up to that point. However, the increase was mostly due to projects predating the Rawson Plan that happened to come to fruition at that time, notes Meg: "There wasn't much 'planted' during 1998 and 1999." According to Jeff Reaves, UCAR associate vice president for finance and administration, "A lot of variability comes from external factors that were independent of the Rawson Plan."

Along came Lifeminders

The sale of WITI Corp. has changed minds as well as dollars. The UCAR Foundation met several times this year to debate how to handle revenue from the sale (much of it in stocks that can't be traded until 2001). A new task force includes UCAR president Rick Anthes and the heads of relevant divisions, programs, and groups. Although divisions and programs will likely continue to carry out some of their own licensing, the idea of a fresh start for the foundation is gaining steam.

Wayne Moore.

Former WITI employee Wayne Moore opted to stay with UCAR rather than join most of the rest of the group at Lifeminders headquarters in Reston, Virginia. In October Wayne was named vice president for business development for the foundation. He is the first full-time employee devoted to long-term planning (most of the foundation's staff have had to carve out their time from other duties).

Wayne thinks the WITI sale could give the foundation the critical mass it needs to properly carry out its mission on behalf of UCAR. "I felt the foundation was never properly capitalized," he says. By the same token, he believes the divisions were never propertly equipped to address tech transfer, either. "By decentralizing commercialization, it created an unfair load on the programs."

Power hitters in the bullpen

ATD and RAP are UCAR's two heaviest hitters in the technology game. Still, as Dave Carlson points out, many of ATD's creations are inherently limited in their appeal. "Companies are looking for the 'killer app,' something that will produce hundreds of thousands of units or, in the case of a service function, millions of users," says Dave. "This way they recover and justify their big venture-capital investments. I don't see killer apps coming out of ATD."

Dave does see ATD continuing to work with the small number of companies interested in the division's specialized work. "We know our list of potentially interested vendors on a new ATD technology is certainly less than five, and in some cases less than three. They're mostly thinking of the meteorological market. We hope that a vendor will say, 'I've got rights to this technology—now let's see what else we could do with it.' But generally they're risk averse and not really in an expansive mood."

Across the FL courtyard, RAP deals with a far greater number of clients. At any one time, the division has some 30 ongoing projects, only a few of which actually produce licensing revenue. The work is sponsored by private companies, federal agencies, and other nations—right now RAP has contracts with Argentina, Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. "There are big fish and little fish," says Rich Wagoner. "Funding ranges from a few thousand dollars to several million."

As RAP's tech-transfer areas are leveraged and broadened from its aviation-related work, the division is now focusing on new initiatives in water resources, precision agriculture, and two other areas:

  • Intelligent transportation systems. A new group headed by Bill Mahoney will spend three years creating a "smart roads" prototype for the Federal Highway Administration. The goal is to help highway managers allocate staff and materials so that state transportation departments can efficiently administer winter maintenance tasks. The study area extends from Kansas and Nebraska west to Nevada. A decision- support system will be developed to help managers identify the timing, intensity, and duration of winter storms along particular highway segments. Follow-up work could extend to hurricane evacuation support.

  • Military applications. A growth area over the past several years, this includes the modernization of meteorological support systems at the West Desert Test Center, the White Sands Missile Range, the Redstone Arsenal, and the Yuma and Aberdeen Proving Grounds. RAP is also working with the Army on other projects and the Navy to build a nowcasting system for its battle groups.

    Hits we can't yet see

    Despite the extent of its industry contacts, RAP finds the search for a tech-transfer home run as daunting as everyone else does. "We basically operate off of soft money," notes Rich. "We have to invest a lot of time and energy in order for our technology to become visible. The path is constantly changing. If you think you understand it, come back in two years and it's completely different."

    Education has unexpectedly jumped onto the licensing scene in a big way with the arrival of two high-profile programs. Windows to the Universe is a 6,000-page Web site developed with NASA funding at the University of Michigan to provide earth and space science information to students and the public. It moved to UCAR this summer with its manager, Roberta Johnson, who is now UCAR's director of education and training. The arrival of the Web site, which gets some 10 to 12 million hits a month, has roughly tripled the traffic on UCAR's Web servers. UCAR is now negotiating with several potential sponsors for Windows to the Universe, which could result in revenue to maintain and enhance its content. "There's a chance that a significant portion may be available to fund other things," says Roberta.

    Another UCAR-based program, the Digital Library for Earth System Education ( DLESE), is in the midst of developing a prototype for classroom testing in the fall of 2001. Meg says, "I think there's some commercial potential down the road for DLESE and more immediately for Windows to the Universe." (Staff Notes Monthly will cover DLESE in an upcoming feature.)

    As its new incarnation takes shape, the UCAR Foundation is seeking ideas for a new service-oriented company whose placeholder name is Newco. The goal would be to deliver value-added services—based largely on existing products, such as the NCAR/Penn State Mesoscale Model, version 5 (MM5)—that would extend beyond the current divisional and program missions. According to UCAR president Rick Anthes, "The company would be carefully constructed so as not to interfere or compete with NCAR or UOP programs. Indeed, Newco would be able to provide services that NCAR and UOP are presently turning down because they are relatively routine in nature and hence of little interest to our programs."

    "We've learned a lot about what to do and what not to do," says Wayne. "We want people to understand the opportunities. If you're contacted by industry in any way, shape, or form, that's the market calling. Let us help you work that contact."

    • Bob Henson

    Base hits

    Several projects have provided modest but steady income for UCAR and its divisions and programs over the past few years.

  • NCAR Graphics software has been made available to universities and other users at nominal cost since 1987. The current two-tier plan, which started last spring, allows users to either download the most recent source code for free or purchase a full- featured earlier version that includes CD-ROM documention, site installation, and user consulting. In past years NCAR Graphics has generated between $200,000 and $300,000 in annual licensing income. The free source code has been "really popular," says Ethan Alpert, who oversees NCAR Graphics. "We hope enough people get into it so that we can organize a user community for open-source development and continue to grow the product." If other developers get involved, "we can devote our resources to other research."

  • Over the past decade COMET has distributed hundreds of its training modules on laser disc and CD-ROM. These have been distributed free to COMET's sponsors—National Weather Service, Air Force, and Navy meteorologists—and on a cost-recovery basis (now $75 per module) to universities, private entities, and foreign weather services. In FY00 the modules brought in roughly $20,000 in licensing revenue. Much of COMET's training is now shifting to Web-based modules accessible to all at no cost.

  • RAP's Low-Level Wind Shear Alert System (LLWAS) was the first real-time tool for assessing wind shear. It was later combined with Doppler radar to produce the successful warning system installed by Raytheon at large hub airports in the United States. LLWAS is now licensed as a basic wind-shear detection tool for smaller airports in the states and abroad that can't afford Doppler radar. In FY00, LLWAS generated about $180,000 in royalties.

    • BH

  • STARS: The journey from brainstorm to market

    Eleanor Praskovskaya and Alex Praskovsky.

    Validating and applying a great idea can be a pretty wild ride. Along the way, imaginations stir, grand visions form, and the race to success is soon fast apace. Alex Praskovsky (RAP) and Eleanor Praskovskaya (ATD) are two NCAR inventors who know a lot about this journey. The couple's recent ideas have generated keen interest across UCAR and are now on the technology-transfer fast track.

    Alex and Eleanor's creation bears the name STARS (Structure Function Analysis of Received Signals), and many in NCAR believe it could have a big impact in improving the usefulness of information derived from radar and lidar. Some of the broader thinking includes possible spinoffs in medical probing and other realms. With ideas and hopes in mind, Alex and Eleanor have applied for a patent.

    To understand STARS, think of looking through an antique stereoscopic slide viewer. Your mind compares the two images of the same space taken at slightly different angles—i.e., the spaced signals of nearly the same scanned volume—and analyzes their differences. Although the two images are almost identical, the slight variations (i.e., signal structures) produce the perception of three-dimensionality, a characteristic extracted only through the mind's close comparison of the two images or signal structures. By subtracting the structural details between two or more signals, the slightest variations amplify new features or characteristics that stand out, such as the three- dimensionality in the stereoscopic viewer analogy.

    STARS uses the equivalent of two closely spaced antennas to sense an object in space and precisely follow its short-term, small-scale changes in three dimensions. Part of the technique's beauty is its flexibility. STARS can use signals emitted by an object (such as radiation from a star) as well as reflected signals (from radar or lidar, for example). All that's needed is multiple receivers, spaced so that the sensed radiating volumes overlap in space. "The equations are all very simple," says Alex.

    The technique utilizes the mathematical concept of the "structure function," devised in the mid–20th century but never applied to signals from remote sensors until now. The Praskovskys were exposed to the concept during their academic training in Russia: Alex in turbulence theory and random signal processing, Eleanor in heat-transfer theory. Until they started working on STARS, Alex says, "I'd never seen a weather radar."

    The "aha" moment that led to STARS occurred in 1996. After Alex learned about the use of correlation functions and spectra to analyze signals from multiple antennas, he came up with the idea of applying a different tool (i.e., structure functions) from the world of turbulence to address the same problem. He shared the idea with Eleanor, and they cogitated for two or three weeks before taking it to Dave Parsons and Dave Carlson (ATD). Eleanor then got the OK to shift her ATD work to the new project, where she took theoretical algorithms and turned them into usable technology. "We promised to obtain winds for ATD's Multiple Antenna Profiling Radar (MAPR) in six months," she says, "but it actually took more than two years." Still, it was success.

    In intensive tests, STARS produced impressively realistic wind data. Unlike Doppler data, STARS readings don't "fold over" to produce ambiguous numbers at high velocities. STARS also appears to add value to the readings from MAPR. Further testing is now under way using data from last month's MAPR deployment in Utah.

    The set of possible applications for STARS is broad and offers many avenues to evaluate: wind and turbulence monitoring for aircraft, enhancement of single-Doppler radar output, underground sensing of geologic features, and imaging or flow measurement for medical applications. Some of the more annoying aspects of radar displays—clutter from birds, buildings, and other unwanted targets—could be significantly mitigated. How all this will be sold to the world at large is still being debated.

    "STARS seems to have a few unique, advantageous features, although it is not a panacea," says Alex. "We're thinking more and more about the concept of an integrated product, so a user will get the best results possible from a combination of several methods."

    • Paul Herzegh (RAP) and BH

    UCAR's patented lineup for 2000

    Each year UCAR recognizes the staff behind technologies that were granted U.S. patents in that year. Four creations and nine inventors received plaques and kudos in a luncheon ceremony on 8 November.

    Method of moment estimation and feature extraction for devices which measure spectra as a function of range or time
    Inventors: Larry Cornman, Cory Morse, Kent Goodrich
    Patent No.: 5,940,523, issued 17 August 1999
    The idea: Designed with radar processing in mind, this software helps pinpoint turbulence and similar features that encompass a range of values, separating them from clutter and other unwanted signals.
    According to the inventor: "The difficult part was to come up with an algorithm that treats this data like an image and processes it like a human would," says Larry.

    Enhanced microburst detection system
    Inventor: Dave Albo
    Patent No.: 5,973,635, issued 26 October 1999
    The idea: This system uses an enhanced version of fuzzy-logic processing to detect microbursts. Improvements include using higher- altitude radar signals to confirm the low-level event, tracking multiple radar scans to gauge the persistence of a microburst signal, and estimating the possible loss of aircraft speed due to a sensed microburst.
    According to the inventor: "Given that there's a microburst detected at some point in space and time, it's more likely there will be another one [there or nearby]."

    Method and apparatus using slant-path water delay estimates to correct Global Positioning Satellite survey error
    Inventors: Chris Alber, Stick Ware, Chris Rocken, and Fred Solheim
    Patent No.: 6,067,852, issued 30 May 2000
    The idea: This technique measures integrated water vapor along multiple angled paths extending upward to Global Positioning System satellites from an earthbound GPS receiver. The method can also be used to improve the accuracy of GPS surveying.
    According to the inventor: "Water vapor's one of the major things that affects microwave frequencies," notes Chris. "With this system, you can actually see the clumping of water vapor in the atmosphere."

    System for determination of optimal travel path in a multidimensional space
    Inventor: Bill Myers
    Patent No.: 6,085,147, issued 4 July 2000
    The idea: Designed with air travel in mind, but potentially adaptable to other vehicular travel, this system calculates a route that is most likely to avoid adverse weather. It may prove useful in the ongoing shift toward "free flight," in which aircraft need no longer stick to predetermined flight paths.
    According to the inventor: "There hasn't been much work in how aircraft are going to move around and figure out their best route."

    UCAR's patent holders for 2000: (left to right) Dave Albo, Bill Myers, Chris Rocken, Larry Cornman, Kent Goodrich, Fred Solheim, Chris Alber, Cory Morse, and Stick Ware.


    In this issue... Other issues of Staff Notes Monthly
    UCARNCARUOP

    Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
    Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
    Last revised: Wed Dec 13 17:30:40 MST 2000