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March 28, 1996

Pitt pursues commercial outlets for technology developed here

Pitt's income from licensing agreements on University-owned patents has grown from $320,000 to $1.25 million during the last three fiscal years, with the money being divided about equally among the faculty inventors, their academic departments and the central University.

Between fiscal year 1992 and FY 1995, the number of licensing agreements that Pitt signed with commercial companies to market inventions and technologies developed here increased from one to 16.

To more aggressively pursue commercial outlets for technology developed at Pitt, the University administration this month hired Arthur A. Boni to direct the newly formed Office of Technology Management.

Boni has 25 years of experience as a manager with a variety of research and development and technology companies in Massachusetts and California. Most recently, he was responsible for creating and managing new business ventures for Pharm-Eco Laboratories, Inc., a Lexington, Mass.-based drug synthesis and chemical services company.

"The trend here [at Pitt] is up in terms of technology transfer," Boni said. "I was hired to make sure that trend continues — not just to continue licensing new technologies that are developed at Pitt and the medical center but also to accelerate the process of forming partnerships between the University and industry.

"That includes partnerships with companies that are already here as well as start-up companies and existing companies that we can attract to the area." The bottom line: "My goal is to put Pitt on the map as one of the national leaders in technology transfer within the next five years," Boni said.

Human tissue engineering, materials science, cancer research and discovery of new drugs are the four research areas at Pitt that Boni considers most promising for technology transfer in the next 5-10 years. "That's based on our critical mass of talent and technology in those areas plus the market potential for each one," he explained.

"I've only been here for two weeks, so I can't point to any quantitative deals that have been made since I got here," Boni said in an March 18 interview. "But I've spent time so far learning about emerging technologies at the [Pitt-affiliated] Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative and working with people there to develop appropriate business strategies. I have seen that the local investment community is very interested in that initiative. That includes venture investors as well as foundations." The tissue engineering market is projected to grow nationally from about $250 million this year to more than $1 billion annually by the early 21st century, according to a study published in the Jan. 15 issue of Genetic Engineering News. "I think this region can capture a large part of that market and make a major impact not only on the University but on the western Pennsylvania economy," Boni said.

Boni plans to submit a plan this summer to Pitt's senior administration and Board of Trustees outlining goals and strategies for increasing revenue from University-developed technology; developing partnerships between Pitt researchers and private industry as well as non-profit institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University; and creating jobs and spin-off companies.

He declined to cite specific goals and strategies he's considering. But Boni noted that Pitt's $1.25 million in licensing revenue last year represented about 0.5 percent of the University's overall research budget of $236 million. By comparison, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — the leader in technology transfer among U.S. universities — generated about $8.7 million in revenue last year, equal to 1.24 percent of its overall research budget.

"I'd like to see our 0.5 percent figure increase to 2 or 3 percent over the next three-to-five years," Boni said.

He acknowledged that some universities may lose sight of their academic missions as they pursue money-making partnerships. But that need not happen at Pitt, he said.

"It's really a balancing act. As research funding at the federal level decreases, there is certainly a need to look for ways to augment those resources, and that leads to the formation of partnerships with private companies," Boni said.

"As with any real partnerships, they have to be structured on a win-win basis, so the company gets the profits it's seeking while the university increases its revenues without compromising its missions of education, research and community service." In an effort to prevent conflicts of interest from arising in University-private company partnerships, Pitt's administration plans to adopt a new policy aimed at maintaining a separation between University and private resources in such partnerships. The policy should become official sometime in April, Boni said.

Prior to Boni's arrival, Pitt technology transfer activities were led by Fran Connell, director of the University's Office of Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property, and Reed McManigle, technology transfer specialist in the Office of Research at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Connell and McManigle now report to Boni, who in turn reports to Provost James Maher and Senior Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences Thomas Detre.

Detre, who with Maher co-chaired the search that led to Boni's hiring, said: "The number of commercial licensing agreements here has been going up exponentially in recent years, both at the medical center and within the rest of the University. Much of the credit for that increase must go to Ms. Connell and Mr. McManigle, who have spent much of their time advising faculty on steps they need to take to obtain patents for their inventions and new technologies. They [Connell and McManigle] also have been very active in pursuing licensing agreements" that permit companies to market those inventions and technologies.

"Unfortunately, neither of them have had the time to actually do marketing, which is the most important function" in technology transfer, Detre said.

More than 80 people applied for Boni's job. Ten were "extensively interviewed" by the search committee, which included Pitt personnel and local technology business persons. Boni impressed the committee with his 25 years of experience in developing and marketing new technologies, Detre said.

"Dr. Boni has a great deal of experience in the outside world, much more than our people, who were more limited in their experience," the senior vice chancellor said.

During 1995, Boni was vice president for new venture development at Pharm-Eco Laboratories. On behalf of Pharm-Eco, he founded and served as CEO of SynAx Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a spin-off organization that develops new drugs in neuroscience. He was also managing director and CEO of SciVision, a company that develops and markets software tools for scientists and engineers in life and material sciences R&D.

Boni also has held corporate officer jobs at Physical Sciences, Inc. of Andover, Mass. (1983-1995) and Science Applications International Corp. (1974-1983) and Systems, Science and Software (1971-1974), both of LaJolla, Calif.

Early in his career, Boni was a research assistant for four years at the University of California at San Diego (where he completed his Ph.D. in 1968) and an assistant professor in the engineering and applied science department at Yale University (1968-1972). He has published 75 journal articles and owns two patents for combustion, pollution and chemical process control apparatuses.

Boni grew up in the Pittsburgh area and earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon. "I've been gone from this area for about 30 years and I'm glad to be back" — for professional as well as personal reasons, he said. Western Pennsylvania offers a strong base of corporations, foundations and higher education institutions, along with a skilled and dedicated work force, according to Boni. "What's missing is the entrepreneurial spirit and investment infrastructure that are needed to create new businesses," he said. "One of my goals will be to help improve that situation."

— Bruce Steele

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