Ruben Flores

— Certain California universities have a reputation for churning out companies in addition to ground-breaking research.

Ruben Flores is on a mission to get UC San Diego mentioned first when collegiate entrepreneurship is discussed.

With more than $1 billion for research going to the university annually, the intellectual property is there. And a think tank recently ranked the university No. 20 in the nation for technology transfer, the term research institutions use to describe university-developed intellectual property.

Flores, UCSD’s director of commercialization, was hired two years ago by the university to transform its Technology Transfer Office, which, like at many major research institutions, is the group that handles the university’s IP and its commercialization.

Innovation, Commercialization

His hopes for the office are reflected clearly in its new name: Office of Innovation and Commercialization. But the office is undergoing more than a rebranding.

Flores, who until his move to UCSD had spent a significant portion of his career in private industry, has developed a slew of events and programs intended to encourage entrepreneurship on campus — and link university-based innovations with the regional entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The office’s flagship program, the Ignite conference, is March 6-7. About 700 people attended the first Ignite conference, in 2017, which featured more than 35 mentoring sessions and $100,000 in cash and in-kind services for entrepreneurs.

Flores, who earned his doctorate in chemistry and biochemistry from UCLA, began his career at BD Biosciences Pharmingen, a San Diego-based biotech firm. He has also worked at Biosite (now Inverness), where he worked on clinical trials, Chemicon (now MilliporeSigma), where he managed research and development, clinical trials and marketing for diagnostic products.

Directly prior to joining UCSD, he was vice president of business development and technology transfer for the Los Angeles BioMedical Research Institute at Harbor UCLA Medical Center.

“Almost every academic center in the world has some form of office that tries to help in transforming the inventions, ideas and projects taking place there into products and services,” he said. “For 15 years we’ve had a Technology Transfer Office … It’s a name that has a lot of baggage.”

Need Business Savvy

In the private sector, such offices have a reputation as lacking in business savvy, he said.

UCSD’s office tops the UC system in the number of licenses it issues and companies it spins off annually, Flores said. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

“We revamped the process to make it similar, faster, no nonsense and open up the university as a platform for anybody in the community who wishes to explore ways in which they can become an entrepreneur,” he said.

Steps taken over the last couple years have included reducing the cost of using IP developed at the university; establishing the San Diego Innovation Council, a group of representatives from the region’s research universities and organizations working together to link external organizations with available resources; launching an entrepreneur-in-residence program; and hosting regular events, such as the Ignite conference and monthly talks by faculty on their latest research, to more-closely link the campus and the community.

Two Day Conference

The Ignite conference, which was a one day event in 2017, has been expanded this year to two days. The agenda includes interactive workshops and networking opportunities.

“It’s an open platform for anyone in the community to learn what entrepreneurship is all about,” Flores said.

UCSD’s efforts are part of a broader trend of increasing improvement in communication between academia and the private sector, according to the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica-based think tank.

“While industry energizes innovation through research and development (R&D) initiatives, the main catalyst that fuels knowledge-based growth once again lies where it started: the American research university,” the report said. “As new, bi-directional information exchanges open up between academic and industry researchers — as opposed to past linear models — more commercially attuned knowledge exchange is shared, leading to a rise in entrepreneurial success and economic impact.”

This process benefits regional economies the most as “knowledge spillover” from universities spurs the creation of technology-based clusters, the report said.

In fiscal year 2015, the latest data available at the time of the report’s publication, more than 1,000 firms were launched through TTOs at research universities, and more than 70 percent of startups were established in the same state as the university with which they were affiliated.

Ignite Conference

What: UCSD’s flagship innovation and entrepreneur conference

When: March 6-7

Where: UC San Diego

Who: Faculty, students, staff, and alumni from UC San Diego and regional universities; entrepreneurs; investors; members of the community.