Envision Analytics seeks to reduce the number of elderly and disabled people who fall to their deaths each year by creating the iCare alert system, which sends a silent signal to caregivers when a person moves out of their safe seat or bed. RF Pyramids creates products which target wireless communications, 5G telecommunication systems, sensors, control and similar advanced electronic applications by developing electronic devices, circuits and applications for high-frequency systems.
They are just two of the many companies that have their innovations protected by the Technology Ventures division of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The program helps companies started by university faculty and students to earn patents for their intellectual property and enter the marketplace with those ideas, and it has been headed since August 2018 by a dynamic thinker named David Hinton.
“Technology Ventures has been around at the U of A since 1990, and not only figures out the best intellectual property protection methods for the innovations it covers, but also identifies best-fit collaborations, technology evaluations and licensing opportunities with established companies and startups,” said Hinton. “I’m also interim director of the Arkansas Research and Technology Park (ARTP), which is designed to stimulate a knowledge-based economy in the state of Arkansas that enhances our reputation both intellectually and economically.”
High-tech thinking comes naturally to Hinton, having been raised by his electrical engineer father and trained veterinarian mother in Rochester, Minn. – home of both the Mayo Clinic (where he received his training and started his career) and computer giant IBM. He earned his PhD at the Mayo Clinic College of Biomedical Sciences, which he said “essentially certifies that you’re a souped-up project manager,” and his thesis project there gave him in-depth project management training.
“My PhD is in neuroscience, and I was studying behavior that was primarily goal-directed and habitual behavior including impulsive and compulsive behavior,” Hinton recalled. “I was studying these behaviors in the context of psychiatric disorders including addictive disorders, primarily alcoholism, and one of the projects I was working on was related to the prediction of treatment efficacy.”
Indeed, Hinton studied three FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of alcoholism, which had not been subjected to a detailed decision-making process of what type of person each drug would benefit. The process he followed was one of trial and error, with the goal of predicting whether a patient would respond to one compound over another.
But the project had a larger impact on Hinton as well, as he discovered the harsh reality that the Mayo Clinic lacked enthusiasm for his work since they didn’t see enough of a commercial angle to back it further.
“It was disappointing because I worked really hard on it and wanted to get it into the market and would really help patients,” said Hinton, who lives in Fayetteville with his wife Jamie and their two children. “It’s hard to get a patient with addictive disorder into a hospital to begin with, and if they fail with the first drug it’s much harder to get a second chance. With my general curiosity about science and the business side of science, that’s what got me interested in helping others transfer what they were working on in the lab at the university into a product that can be utilized for public benefit.
“I had several assumptions I was working on but I may not have been working on the right thing. So by taking a step back and getting customer discovery, I may have been able to change my research focus to something more applicable,” he continued. “Now I’m motivated to help people if they’re interested in commercialization, helping get in early with them to change their thinking or think about things in a different light. I help them realize that the end user or customer is somebody important to think about from the beginning so you’re building something that people want.”
All’s well that ends well, however, and Hinton landed his current perch thanks to a $24 million grant that the U of A received from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation that expanded the Technology Ventures program. The grant also created the office of the Vice Chancellor for Economic Development, which also helped hone the university’s focus on commercializing intellectual property that had been developed under its auspices.
“There was some turnover when I came in. There was a quick transfer of institutional knowledge and since then we have grown to an office of five,” Hinton noted. “We also have an active internship program that we work with law students, accounting and finance students and STEM graduates.
“We received a Phase Two award as well, in 2020, of almost $195 million to continue with the effort but also expand to focus on some innovation clusters, including data science, food and technology, bio sciences and bio engineering, neuroscience and more,” he said. “It really established a new institute called the U of A Institute for Integrative and Innovative research. We’ll be recruiting new faculty to campus that are really stars in not only their research but also have a lot of experience with generating intellectual property. We’re really looking forward to getting that institute put together and stimulate our pipeline of IP we work with.”