New leaders in place at UT Research Foundation

As a young boy growing up in the early days of commercial television, I was a fan of western movies and shows. I always remembered those shows when there was the proverbial “new sheriff in town.”

In the case of the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF), there are two new sheriffs in town and more deputies to follow. One of the new leaders – Dick Gourley – is new to Knoxville but not the University. He served for years as Dean of Pharmacy at the UT Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis. The other – David Washburn – is new to the university but not orange.

Gourley is UTRF’s Interim President while Washburn is Vice President for UTRF’s Multidisciplinary Organization (MDO) that includes all UT units other than the UTHSC component. Richard Magid is Vice President for that UTRF entity in Memphis.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the two new leaders explained their interest in their respective roles and shared their collective strategy for a stronger UTRF in the future.

Gourley said that “we are totally restructuring UTRF . . . looking at functions and how we do things” and “staffing-up” for more impact in the future. Unlike Washburn, who had no previous relationship with UTRF, Gourley chaired the advisory group for the UTHSC component.

“We are charged with streamlining the organization,” Gourley said. He added that a new organization with a new name would be in place by June.

Washburn oversees the MDO portion of UTRF which includes the Chattanooga, Tullahoma and Knoxville campuses along with the Institute of Agriculture and the Graduate School of Medicine in Knoxville.

“We are aligned with UT’s goal of becoming a Top 25 research university. Our goal is to become a Top 25 technology transfer organization by 2020,” Washburn said.

Both Gourley and Washburn are strong believers in collaboration and being highly visible in the proverbial “halls of academe.”

They have been traveling the state, meeting with leaders at every campus to understand their priorities and expectations. A critical part of their strategy involves hiring more licensing associates and making sure those staff are interacting regularly with UT researchers in their offices and labs.

They acknowledge that more resources are needed to realize their long-term goals, and they believe fundraising from non-traditional sources like donors can be part of the strategy.

“We need to drive-up disclosures,” they said. “If we do so, everything else will go up.”

Another part of the strategy is to elevate the visibility of UTRF by aligning the meetings of its board with those of the UT Board of Trustees. Several members of the latter board serve on the UTRF board, and top UT leaders attend the Board of Trustees meetings.

Success will be measured by many of the standard technology transfer metrics – number of invention disclosures, number of patents filed, number of patents executed, number of licenses executed, amount of royalty dollars generated, amount of patent costs reimbursed and number of start-up companies created.

“If we’re successful in these metrics, we believe the result will be new startup’s, new licenses and new jobs in Tennessee,” Washburn said.

Washburn also plans to regularly benchmark UTRF against universities similar in size and geography. The slate includes Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas.

“We’re looking for our Gatorade,” Gourley said, referencing the “homerun” that the University of Florida achieved years ago. Not surprisingly, given his professional background, he believes UT’s “big win” could very well come from drug discovery.

Gourley also noted that UTRF, as a 501(c)(3) organization, has provided “flexibility” for UT in the past to pursue opportunities like the biofuels initiative that led to the creation of Genera Energy, Tennessee Solar Institute and Cherokee Farm.

“We will continue to look for opportunities that make sense for UT,” he said.

As to the reasons that the two assumed their new roles, Gourley said that he had “advocated for change at UTRF” while chairing the UTHSC unit. “I really believe this is an important part of the university, and I believe I can make a difference.”

He cited his experience in building the College of Pharmacy to the sixteenth ranked program in the country. Gourley also said it was easier to accept the offer from UT Executive Vice President David Millhorn since he and his wife planned to relocate to Knoxville anyway after his retirement as Dean.

“It was the professional opportunity to come and make a difference,” Washburn said. He had spent the previous 10 years at the University of Illinois where he was part of the team that had restructured that program.

“I am very proud of what we accomplished at Illinois and believe they have one of the premier technology commercialization offices on the planet,” he added.  “To have the chance to apply what I learned in that time to the University of Tennessee is a very special opportunity.”

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