Soubantika Palchoudhury had developed a new, more potent plant fertilizer and wanted to market it.
An assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Chemical Engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she filed a patent request, working with the University of Tennessee Research Foundation. With patent approval likely, she wanted to establish a startup company to handle business affairs, but she wasn’t quite sure how to do it.
Jennifer Skjellum stepped in to help.
“My focus was on connecting her to additional resources that could help expand her business skills and knowledge and further assist with commercialization of the product,” Skjellum said.
The first commercialization counselor at UTC, Skjellum steers faculty through the process of taking their ideas, research, devices and developments off the campus and into the wider market.
She works with them to find opportunities to pitch their ideas to potential investors and collaborators. She connects them with organizations that can help develop a marketing plan or build a website.
She also makes sure the final contracts are written in a way that protects the faculty member’s interests, both now and in future.
“They need first to realize that they have intellectual property, and they need to think about protecting it and think that what they’re doing has longer-term applicability or impact,” Skjellum said.
For Palchoudhury, Skjellum directed her to various people and organizations to help her create her company as well as market the fertilizer.
“I designed a new nanofertilizer technology for enhanced growth of food and bioenergy crops,” she said. “Jennifer has been a great mentor for me on the entrepreneurial aspects. She has given me key advice on the path from lab to market. For example, I participated in the Innovation Open Mic Pitch event and the LaunchTN Bundled initiative to bring our technology a step closer to practical application.”
Skjellum was hired for the brand-new commercial coordinator position because it’s time to highlight the research and innovation taking place at UTC, according to Joanne Romagni, vice chancellor for research at the University.
“We are growing up. We need someone to help our faculty realize their intellectual property and help them through the process,” Romagni said.
Numbers show it’s working.
“We have increased our patent applications 700% since she came,” Romagni said.
Skjellum has a background in bringing different groups together to build a larger whole. In 2012, she was hired as president of TechBirmingham, a nonprofit that connected the Alabama city’s tech startups and existing companies with corporations and others for investment funds and support.
In 2018—after moving to Chattanooga with her husband, SimCenter Director Tony Skjellum—she was hired as director of programs and managing director of the HealthTech Accelerator at Co.Lab, the local organization that conducts the same kind of work as TechBirmingham.
Skjellum brought that knowledge to UTC, although the University offers different challenges.
Faculty members may be laser-focused on research—both theirs or their students’—or teaching or writing and publishing articles in professional journals, she explained. With that in the forefront in their minds, they may miss chances—or not see them at all— to patent or license or copyright their work, Skjellum said.
“They may not be really thinking bigger picture, and that’s one of the things I try to help them with. Where can this go? What’s the bigger use of this? How far can we expand it?
“Part of that is they haven’t necessarily been trained to think that way.”
One of her goals also is to show the Chattanooga community and beyond that interesting and groundbreaking research is taking place at UTC and not just in engineering, computer science and other disciplines usually associated with research.
“There’s probably a misperception that the hard sciences are more likely to be in that category, but I’m trying to get everyone to think about what they’re doing in terms of: How can what I’ve created in the lab, or even if it’s a process, be turned into something more impactful and bigger?
“Sometimes it’s just, ‘Hey, I noticed you’ve completed this proposal application, and you indicated that you might have a patent or you might have an invention disclosure here.’ Helping them tease out what is it that they’re working on.”
“There’s unearthed research going on here, and the intellectual capital on this campus is impressive.”