IOWA CITY — Images from University of Iowa-owned art could start appearing on greeting cards, calendars and even T-shirts if a campus push to better market its technologies and precious works materializes.
The institution issued a call this week for potential partners interested in bolstering the UI Research Foundation by providing “commercial evaluation and technology marketing assistance services.”
Those services include evaluating UI technology discoveries for commercial potential; marketing the technologies by reaching out directly to companies and individuals; and helping to close new deals, according to a request for qualifications from interested marketers due by Sept. 5.
A marketing partner also would help the UI — for the first time — monetize its precious works and art collections.
“A lot of the departments and schools around the university that have not traditionally been involved in commercialization are certainly looking for ways in which to find supplemental funding to support their programs,” said UI Research Foundation Executive Director Marie Kerbeshian. “And artwork is one.”
The university isn’t looking to actually sell its artwork, but rather license images for use on greeting cards, calendars, clothing or in the entertainment industry — areas in which the foundation has little expertise. Among the first things a partner would do is catalog potentially licensable works; ensure images of them are digitally rendered; and then market them to retailers.
Because each piece of art the university acquires comes with different terms, only certain pieces within the collection would be available for such marketing.
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Kerbeshian said she’s unsure whether Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” — the most famous piece in the UI collection — could be commercialized. The UI acquired it through a donation in 1959, an era in which such licensing deals were not common.
“Museums tend not to have those rights,” she said. “I would be surprised if we did for the Pollock.”
But plenty of other pieces within the UI Stanley Museum of Art’s 15,000-piece collection do hold potential, which could help the museum reach its goal of raising half of the $50 million needed for a new 63,000-square-foot home to replace the one it lost in the 2008 flood.
The museum, to date, has about $20 million of its $25 million goal.
“It would be helpful for Stanley to be able to go through their portfolio to see — is there any potential there? And really supplement them as they’re working on fundraising for their new building,” Kerbeshian said.
The UI Research Foundation — a nonprofit corporation governed by a board of directors as part of the UI Office of Vice President for Research — is self-sufficient, meaning it doesn’t receive financial help from the state or university.
It sustains itself by taking a cut of revenue it generates from licenses — an amount that has dropped since the university in 2005 stopped receiving income from one of its “blockbuster” technologies: a “CMV promoter,” a biological invention used for controlling gene expression.
That licensed technology, publicly disclosed in the late 1990s, for years generated millions, totaling more than $170 million for the university and its inventors. The windfall allowed the UI to stop using general education support for the research foundation, which used the opportunity to stockpile reserves, according to Kerbeshian.
“But that cushion has been decreasing over time,” she said. “And as we’re approaching the end of those reserves, we are trying to be very careful so we can keep the organization providing service to university while we look at are there are any blockbusters on the horizon and should we change the model at which the organization is supported?”
The foundation in the last year trimmed a third of its workforce to account for the shrinking budget — cutting four and a quarter positions through furloughs and attrition, bringing its staff total to nine.
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“The cuts extended our operating runway for four years,” Kerbeshian said, noting tightening belts across campus haven’t helped the foundation’s argument for renewed UI support.
Although the foundation doesn’t yet know how much hiring a consultant to help with marketing and commercialization might cost, it presumably would be less than the cost of the eliminated positions.
Support in the middle
The UI Research Foundation traditionally has employed a “cradle to grave” model of helping research faculty transfer technology created in a lab to the global marketplace. Experts work with researchers from conception to commercialization — although that has become harder with the cuts, Kerbeshian said.
“We still want to give faculty the service they deserve and expect,” she said. “And we want to be good partners for companies that work with us. We don’t want to be the bottleneck.”
Ideally, according to Kerbeshian, the foundation’s licensing associates will hone their focus on helping faculty at the front end identify innovations they could license while also coordinating deals with companies on the back end.
“We are looking for support in the middle,” she said. “We are taking a look with the RFQ to identify a partner who can supplement what our licensing staff does.”
Iowa’s annual invention discoveries — called disclosures — and completed licensing deals recently have been strong.
The UI reported 143 disclosures in 2018, up from 93 in 2017, and 51 executed licenses, steady with 58 from 2017 and above previous annual tallies of 40, 32 and 29.
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