Brian Darmody is associate vice president for research and economic development at the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP), and special assistant vice chancellor for technology development with the University System of Maryland (USM).
Projects led by Darmody include organizing the university’s first technology transfer office, authoring reforms to the state’s ethics legislation for entrepreneurial startups and developing legislation creating the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO), among others.
He is the principal author of two national policy documents, The Power of Place and The Power of Innovation, and serves as co-principal investigator on the $5.1 million Proof of Concept Alliance, a Department of Defense funded commercialization project.
Darmody previously served as a staff member for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Maryland General Assembly and the Office of the Attorney-Advisor for U.S. Health Care Financing Administration.
He serves on various local and national boards, and is president of the Association of University Research Parks. Darmody holds a Juris Doctor from the University of Baltimore and an undergraduate degree from UMCP.
What is being done to expedite technology transfer in Maryland at UMCP, USM and outside of the system?
First off, finding something to commercialize is great, but that’s not always the mission of basic research. That’s often misunderstood. Research is often intended simply to expand human knowledge, which can lead to long-term changes — such as when the establishment of [DARPANet], a university-[Department of Defense] partnership, allowed computers to talk to each other, which led to the founding of the civilian Internet.
Having said that, what USM has done is set a 10-year goal to start 325 companies by 2021, with 100 coming from UMCP, another 100 from UM’s medical and professional health campus in Baltimore, and the rest coming from elsewhere within the system.
What’s related to that effort is doubling our amount of research, because we need to create that strong foundation to reach our goal. Systemwide, we oversee $1 billion of research annually. We want to double that amount during the next decade. It comes to the USM on a merit basis, mostly from the federal government.
A place like The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) is different, because they’re doing more applied research; here at UM, we do more basic research that’s funded by the likes of NIH and NSF.
The state, in some corners, does not possess the strongest national business profile. Do you feel that our legislators fully understand what needs to be done to become more competitive on a national scale?
I’ll let small and large business owners judge what the state is doing in supporting them or their related activities, but I do think our legislators understand what needs to be done with research and support for universities.
They have tried to support Gov. [Martin] O’Malley in his leadership of supporting education, and they seem to know that the $1 billion per year won by faculty in USM that comes into the state and the [in excess of] $2 billion at Hopkins [including APL] is a big part of the state’s Gross Domestic Product.
Michigan has the auto industry and we have a large academic [research and development] sector here. But no state should ever be dependent on one sector of the economy — which is why we are conducting more research and exploring ways to more effectively commercialize it to involve the private sector.
You’re the co-principal investigator on the $5.1 million Proof of Concept Alliance, a Department of Defense-funded commercialization project. What’s new on that effort?
That was an award from the Federal Lab Consortium for the best university/federal lab partnership. The idea behind it is to bridge the gap, which is called “the Valley of Death” in the industry, that develops when the researcher finds something interesting, but the venture capital community won’t invest in something that isn’t mature enough and the research project needs a market study or has no prototype.
The $5.1 million is to fund the necessary additional work at the Army Research Lab (ARL), which is located near UMCP, for technologies discovered by USM faculty that would be of interest to ARL and support the war fighters.
Are you seeing increased cooperation and communication between the state’s scientists and tech types as you attempt to bring more ideas and inventions to market?
Thanks to Sen. [Barbara] Mikulski, the project mentioned above is available to facilitate that action. While it’s ongoing, there is no more money for additional projects.
The Obama administration is asking each federal lab to come up with a plan to better commercialize the research that is done within each facility, so we’re hoping that the labs will, in turn, ask the administration to continue with the alliance. However, there are other ways universities and federal labs can partner, and we hope those will be part of the administration’s plan.
When you hear figures about Maryland’s ranking in various national business, technology and education polls — such as first in one category, fourth in another and 22nd in another, etc. — do you feel they tell enough of the story?
Someone else always has a new poll with new metrics. It’s pretty clear that we have plenty of research at federal labs and universities in Maryland, but lag in tech commercialization.
Still, whatever metric you use, we could do better. It’s no secret that we’re not Silicon Valley; we could do more and we need to do more. We need more gap funds. Proof of funding is one thing, but how can you sustain that? One way is via the state’s InvestMaryland fund, the new $70 million fund launched by Gov. O’Malley. We also need to find ways to properly incentivize faculty to become involved and pursue patents, and not just publish papers.
What are you observations and concerns about the state of the venture capital market?
Most of the venture capital firms are working farther down the innovation line — not with startups, but with companies that have products that have produced revenues. Even angel (first stage) investors are looking farther ahead than they used to, because venture capital firms are less likely to take chances today than they were five years ago.
So, we need investors for startups. Remember, we have a strong biotech industry here in Maryland, but that generally requires $1 billion in investment, minimum, to invent one new drug. That requires patience, and what we do have to do now is figure out how to bridge that gap and involved the unique biotech base of Maryland that can contribute to new drugs and new medical devices.
What concerns you most about the state’s approach to growing its business base? What’s makes you the most optimistic?
I like the support for higher education, InvestMaryland and TEDCO. I think that the state “gets it” that there are opportunities here.
What makes me less optimistic is that federal budget uncertainty creates inaction, and we have uncertainty from the tax and budget sides. There is also uncertainly in the capital and regulatory markets. All told, that can present a corrosive set of circumstances.
Do you think that, especially given the looming federal government cutbacks, entrepreneurship will cure what’s ailing the economy?
Yes. There have been studies that show that, even in a recession, many companies get created. And job growth can come from, not so much small businesses, but young businesses.
You were involved in the creation of TEDCO. Has the entity performed up to expectations?
It’s been a great technology intermediary, and it’s changed considerably since it was founded. It has a national record of being one of the nation’s best state technology intermediaries.
It would be great to have Congress create a similar entity on the federal level. What a great pathway that would be for the startups; not all of the federal labs have tools like it to get around all of the federal rules, and then on to more tech transfer opportunities.
What would you realistically like to see happen in Maryland during the next five years?
I’d like to see InvestMaryland grow and attract other private venture money, the creation of more robust angel networks and better leveraging of the location of the embassies in D.C. so we can attract more foreign and direct investment.
We have the steak in Maryland and we need to add the sizzle, while developing a better national appreciation of what we have to offer.