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January 3, 2013

'The Business of Science' Taking Former Memphis Man Around the World

When Chris Fender left Memphis in 1991 to attend the University of Missouri, little did he know that the road to the Columbia college town would ultimately take him to India and Japan and other exotic destinations around the world.

The Scotland County R-I graduate started his journey at the University of Missouri studying the field of agronomy and plant science.

In that time, Chris became interested in plant breeding, genetics, and the development of new corn and soybean varieties.

"My first job out of school was working in a research program for the Asgrow Seed Company in Marion, AR," Fender said.

The company was bought by Monsanto and Fender became a Monsanto employee.

"I knew that in order to advance my career in this area I would need a post-graduate degree so I left Monsanto and came back to MU to pursue a MS degree in plant science and plant breeding," he recalled. "My mentor was convinced that a career in this area meant understanding the area of intellectual property as many seed companies began to patent their varieties."

Fender's thesis project involved developing a system for selecting soybean varieties that were resistant to the Soybean Cyst Nematode. The university, through one of its research partners for this project, elected to file a patent on Fender's research.

"That was my first indoctrination into the area of intellectual property," Fender said.

After completing his master's degree, Fender returned to work for Monsanto in Ames, IA where he worked in corn research.

But his heart was in Columbia. Fender began exploring opportunities to return to mid-Missouri city.

"At that time, MU was beginning to ramp up their efforts in the area of technology transfer and had an opening for position managing intellectual property in the area of agriculture and life sciences," he said. "Since there are no degree programs for technology transfer, most professionals in this area are former researchers. I took a chance on making a career switch out of research and into technology transfer which we sometimes refer to as "the business of science".

That chance resulted in Fender's current 10 plus years of employment in the University's Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations. Roughly four years ago he was appointed the interim director of the office and shortly thereafter was named the permanent director.

The office consists of 11 full-time staff members as well as five part-time graduate student assistants. Roughly half the department consists of professional licensing staff with advanced degrees (PhD, MBA, JD, MS) who are technical experts in their particular field. The remainder of the force is administrative, managing the intellectual property and license contracts.

"We are responsible for management of intellectual property created anywhere on the MU campus including the MU School of Medicine which encompasses the MU Hospital," Fender said,. " So the type of intellectual property involved can range from new I-phone apps developed in our College of Education to medical devices developed in School of Medicine and everything in between. We are growing and hope to add additional staff over the next few months in order to better meet the demand."

Fender said his work and that of his office is typically called "Technology Transfer" or "Tech Transfer".

"It refers to the act of moving research results from the research phase to a phase where they are impacting our society," said Fender. "In concept, it really speaks to the heart of the Land-Grant Mission of the University which provided for the existence of university extension programs. One of the features that distinguishes MU and other research intensive institutions is the research function or the 'generation of knowledge'. In addition to generating knowledge, teaching, extension, and economic development are all part of the dissemination of knowledge."

The office operates on the belief that one of the most effective ways of disseminating knowledge is through commercialization.

"MU like most institutions is a non-profit entity," Fender said. "So by providing a mechanism for transferring knowledge, in the form of intellectual property, to the commercial sector, the incentive is there for the 'for-profit' sector to commercialize the intellectual property in a way that allows the knowledge to create impact in our society."

That is essentially what Fender's office at MU does, working to identify, assess, protect, market, and license intellectual property created by the research that is going on within the university. Fender explained that the licensing aspect is what transfers the rights to commercialize intellectual property created by the university to the commercial sector. He added that a contract that would grant those rights is negotiated with a company in return for some compensation in the form of royalties, license fees, equity, or a combination thereof.

"The revenue we receive from these contracts perpetuates the program by providing funds for filing new patents that allow us to capture new intellectual property in addition to maintaining our office," Fender said.

The University of Missouri has had some great success in the biomedical area with some FDA approved radio-pharmaceuticals that are used for treatment and imaging of certain kinds of cancer. Theresphere and Quadramet are two of the most successful cancer treatments that resulted from research at MU. Fender said another pharmaceutical called Zegerid, is the most successful product from a commercial standpoint to come from MU Research. Zegerid is now an over-the-counter product for acid reflux that you can buy at any Wal-Mart or Walgreens.

One of the department's most recent product launches has been Beyond Meat. The chicken-free meat substitute, is completely vegan but has a nearly identical texture to real, boneless, skinless, chicken breast meat.

The product has resulted in the creation of a production facility in Columbia expected to create up to 60 jobs.

"This is a great example of commercialization contributing to the economic viability of our region," Fender said. "The company brought in venture capital investment from the west coast to launch the production facility in Mid-Missouri and the product uses soybeans which is one of Missouri's top crops."

The program reaches far beyond the west coast. Fender recently returned from a trip to India where he spoke at several venues regarding technology transfer. One stop on the trip was in the city of Chennai, where Fender met with one of the University's commercialization partners for some pharmaceutical technology related to treating prostate cancer.

"We toured their research and production facilities in Chennai and Pondicherry," Fender said. "This same company also supports a women's college in Chennai and I was invited to speak to their faculty about technology transfer."

Work has also taken Fender to Japan a few times over the years with trade delegations spearheaded by the Missouri Department of Economic Development for the purpose of meeting with Japanese companies who might be interested in partnering with the university to commercialize technologies resulting from research programs.

That is a long way from Columbia, Missouri, Fenders initial destination to attend college.

"I think it is important that MU be known as much for the outcomes of its research and economic development efforts as it is for its sports teams or that it is a place to go to college," Fender said.

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