It used to be that academia and industry were worlds apart, and rarely was the gulf bridged.
But at UC Irvine, the fledgling Corporate/University Partners Program is trying to close the gap.
When a university researcher has an idea that may have commercial application, or when a biomedical company needs the kind of scientific help that the university can supply, CUPP steps in, said Dan Morris, its coordinator and only full-time staffer.
The 2-year-old program is affiliated with UCI's California College of Medicine but receives no direct university support. Instead, CUPP relies on the contributions of its handful of corporate sponsors.
Companies looking for experts often are confounded by university bureaucracy, Morris said. But by using his operation--which Morris describes as a sort of "brain brokerage"--firms can be immediately plugged into the right UCI sources.
Recently, the program acted as the go-between when Comprehensive Care Corp. sought the assistance of UCI researchers in developing a device that will enable the company's health-care professionals to better monitor the effects of drugs and alcohol on the human brain.
The project, done for a privately held San Diego research consortium of which CompCare is a 25% owner, will provide the Irvine-based provider of substance abuse treatment programs with access to university-based research and a teaching hospital. At the same time, the UCI researchers benefit from the research and will get to keep the equipment after the project is completed.
"Quite obviously, we chose UC Irvine because we are based in Orange County and UCI is the major university nearest to us," said Ken Estes, a CompCare spokesman. "It's a natural marriage."
In exchange for the assistance rendered, Morris hopes that companies will return the favor by joining CUPP, which now has but five members: Costa Mesa-based ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Kendall McGaw Laboratories Inc. and Allergan Pharmaceuticals Inc., both of Irvine, and the Orange County office of the Ernst & Whinney accounting firm and the Institute for Biological Research and Development Inc., both in Newport Beach.
Morris hopes to boost membership and augment the program's modest $20,000 budget--full members, such as ICN, contribute $5,000 a year--by attempting to lure as many local companies as possible, both in person and collectively.
Last week, CUPP was host to a symposium at which executives of major drug and medical-products firms, including Nova Pharmaceuticals Corp. and ICN, discussed the benefits and potential pitfalls that accompany cooperation between universities and corporations, including how to deal with the ethical issues that sometimes crop up.
For example, American Biogenetics Corp. was founded by three UCI professors, including Dr. G. Wesley Hatfield, director of UCI's gene research and biotechnology program. The founders immediately faced the problem of how to avoid conflicts between their university-funded jobs and their private business--both deeply involved in biological research.
So, for ethics' sake, the three professors hold no day-to-day responsibilities at the 2-year-old company, according to Dane Hoiberg, the firm's president and chief executive.
American Biogenetics, which has 10 employees and occupies a modest 5,000-square-foot facility--leased from Nelson Research & Development Inc.--plans to use biotechnology to produce specialty chemicals for industry.
The company received some indirect assistance from CUPP, primarily in establishing contacts, but American Biogenetics otherwise "religiously" maintains an arms-length relationship with UCI, Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg, himself a former UCI vice chancellor, acknowledges that American Biogenetics would not have been possible without its founders' university experience. But, he said, the three do their private research "on their own time."
Although the program still has a long way to go, Morris hopes to bring at least a dozen new corporate members into the fold and boost the budget to about $60,000 by January.