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Universities have Silicon Valley thunder

Caitlan Reeg Nov 6, 2008

Universities have Silicon Valley thunder

Caitlan Reeg Nov 6, 2008


Steve Chiotakis: Silicon Valley is in a start-up slump. The down economy has made venture capital harder to come by, and corporate research budgets are shrinking. That’s given universities a leg up in the battle for new ideas. Caitlan Carroll reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk.

Photographer: So I took three pictures of you: one, two, three.

Caitlan Carroll: And presto! I have my own avatar, winking and blinking at me from a computer screen. It’s like a 3-D cartoon of me — glasses and all.

Photographer: Haha, looks kinda like you.

Carroll: Haha, I turned into a man on the third picture.

I’m at Big Stage. It’s a typical start-up. Staffers are crammed into a small makeshift office hammering away at their laptops. They’re working with software that lets you create animated versions of yourself, or avatars based on pictures you upload.

Big Stage CEO Phil Ressler:

Phil Ressler: We allow you to essentially create the digital you for projection of self into the digital realm.

Big Stage’s software might be used by advertisers — for instance, to put avatars into commercials. Someday, you could click on a Web site and find yourself behind the wheel in the latest car ad.

Ressler: We’ll end up providing the effective software service and in some cases some creative assistance to do that — and we’ll get paid for that.

Unlike many tech start-ups, Big Stage wasn’t born in Silicon Valley. The software technology was created at the University of Southern California with a government grant. Now Big Stage licenses the technology from the university.

Vice Provost Krisztina Holly says USC, like many schools, still has money to invest in student and faculty innovation despite the bad economy.

Krisztina Holly: One of our roles is to manage the patent portfolio or intellectual property portfolio for the university, and then we evaluate and say, well does it make sense to patent this idea?

Often it does. In 2006, universities generated around $1.5 billion in research-related income — much of it from licensing agreements. As venture capital and corporate research budgets shrinks, Holly says that number will probably grow.

Holly: Industry is interested. They are looking to universities to license technologies that are coming out of the research at the universities.

Al Schneider is a venture capitalist in Los Angeles. He says that doesn’t mean other startups won’t be able to land investors.

Al Schneider: The companies that are, have really compelling stories are gonna get funded. I think that the cream will rise to the top.

For those inventors who might want the leg up a university can provide, there is a little catch: You have to be in school.

In Los Angeles, I’m Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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