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UCSD's Qualcomm Institute unveils Innovation Space

Integrating academia and industry has been a key charge of the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego, but that mission became much easier in March with the official opening of the Qualcomm Institute Innovation Space.

The 6,000 square feet of private offices and collaborative work space on the second floor of Atkinson Hall will house startups, researchers from national labs and corporations that use or want to take advantage of technology developed at UCSD.

“What we have done from the very beginning was basically enable nimble startups,” said Ramesh Rao, director of the Qualcomm Institute.

“We were already producing startups, so the last piece was just enabling people to have a place here that they can call their own, where they could develop and refine intellectual property as a company, as opposed to a partnership.”

Rao said the option of working in partnership with the university or as a separate, individual entity, is enticing to new companies.

“They all look forward to licensing something from a university, but they also look forward to defining it on their own,” he said.

For now, the Innovation Space is occupied by seven startups, all of which have strong ties to UCSD, but Rao said he’s already in talks with national labs and corporations, and expects them to take part soon.

The space — part “light-touch” incubator, part co-working area and all about access to UCSD labs and students – was initially conceived during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009.

“We were trying to figure out what would we could seek that would allow us to build new relationships. It wasn’t about asking the state for new money because there was no money to be had,” Rao said.

“How could we better take care of ourselves and remain true to our mission to bring new life into the local economy?”

One of the first companies in the Qualcomm Institute Innovation Space, ComHear is breathing new life not only into the regional economy, but also UCSD.

The collaboration between Peter Otto, director of UCSD's music technology program, and Randy Granovetter, a veteran in the telecommunications field, developed patented audio beaming technology capable of creating 3-D audio, a BioFoam covering for headphones and several other advances in audio technology.

In addition to working with UCSD students, ComHear is also funding roughly $1 million in research a year.

“Startups normally don’t fund research at $1 million a year — and that was their plan. They’re doing absolutely, fantastically well,” Rao said.

The offices, which rent for $3 per square foot, are nice, but the real draw of the Institute is the surrounding environment.

“It’s hugely valuable in terms of having some space that’s private where we can store stuff, but also a lot of space for collaboration and brainstorming,” said Jamie Alexandre, founder of the Foundation for Learning Equality, which he started as a grad student at UCSD. The foundation has several other former student employees, as well as undergrad volunteers and interns.

“I think being juxtaposed with a lot of research groups doing very different, but also sometimes related things, the sort of intellectual community; it’s the students, it’s faculty.

“We go to talks the employees can go to, and sit in on classes or interact with professors or get advice from other researchers on campus. So just the campus environment has been huge, specifically for being able to bring students in and engage students.”

The interactions have been a great benefit for Aarash Bordbar, a former UCSD grad student who spun his work with Professor Bernhard Palsson into computational biotech company Sinopia Biosciences. He moved the startup’s headquarters from One America Plaza in downtown San Diego to Atkinson Hall.

“We thought it’d be a lot better to come up here to an area where it’s like an incubator and has other likeminded people trying to innovate, so it’s a better place to work” Bordbar said. He called One America Plaza “a building for lawyers and accountants. It’s not really the right spot for trying to do engineering or science.”

Rao stressed that the Innovation Space may be “like” an incubator, but is not an incubator.

“The space is underdesigned on purpose,” he said. “There are many other places where you get space, you get mentors, you have people as part of the enterprise that funds you. Soup to nuts — they do everything for you. That is exactly what we do not do.”

He said companies in the Qualcomm space need to be entrepreneurial and decide for themselves how and when they’ll get funding and develop as companies during their two-year allotment in the space.

“You might think of it as a very light-touch incubator.”

The space will function this way for corporations and national research labs as well, when they become integrated.

Rao said he’s been in discussions with Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and SPAWAR; talks with nearby SPAWAR are the furthest along. How each collaboration plays out will depend on the lab’s needs.

He’s also been in early discussions with corporations eager to work with researchers developing early-stage technologies.

‘”Large corporations used to have their own R&D labs in their own campuses, and many of them are walking away from it because … it’s an artificial environment,” Rao said.

“Increasingly, they are attracted to universities because we have brilliant students who are dying to do the next phenomenal Ph.D. research.”

Startups connect through an application detailing their work and how it relates to UCSD, or how they would collaborate with UCSD and Qualcomm Innovation researchers. A panel of UCSD faculty from a wide range of disciplines evaluates the applications and decides which companies would be a good fit.

“I think it’s gone better than I expected because the people that we have seem to have mastered how to turn the intangible value of this place into something really tangible,” Rao said.

“There is a certain culture in this place … — and I think the outcomes have exceeded my expectations — that these companies are savvy enough to understand how to take advantage of what we have in ways that we may not know how to.”

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