Until Blue Water Satellite Inc. came along, as company founder Dr. Robert Vincent puts it, “nobody had ever sold satellite monitoring of a reservoir to anybody.”
Six months after operations began, though, initial customers had bought into Blue Water enough that the Bowling Green State University spinoff company could make its first royalty payment to BGSU. The payment was modest ($213), but “there will be more, and they will be bigger,” said Dr. Deanne Snavely, interim vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate College.
Blue Water, she said, is “the first official BGSU spinoff company that has commercialized BGSU intellectual property.” In this case, the intellectual property is a patented algorithm developed by Vincent, geology, to detect the presence and location of cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae that present human health risks, in drinking-water reservoirs. The algal blooms are mapped on images from the LANDSAT satellite and targeted for treatment.
The patent was awarded in November 2006 to BGSU, which then granted an exclusive license to Vincent’s fledgling company. Working through the licensure process took about 18 months, Snavely said, noting that “every agreement had to be done for the first time.”
In the meantime, Blue Water received a $50,000 grant from the Toledo-based Regional Growth Partnership for a market analysis of the business’s potential. Funded through the Ohio Department of Development, the grant was crucial for convincing investors to finance the company. “Blue Water wouldn’t have come out of the chute” without RGP and its finance arm, Rocket Ventures, Vincent said.
Blue Water is Rocket Ventures’ “first university-derived start-up client company in northwest Ohio to make royalty payments to its parent university based on real earnings (sales revenue) from a bona fide paying customer,” Greg Knudson, director of Rocket Ventures, wrote in a recent letter to John Kane, licensing officer in BGSU’s Office of Technology Transfer and Services (TTS).
Kane pointed out that while a percentage of any royalties paid to the University goes to the inventors of the licensed technology, the balance goes into the BGSU research budget to support research activities. In Blue Water’s case, he said, the University’s most important contribution is the potential benefit that its technology brings to the public, which is “what we’re here for.”
The company has fewer than 10 clients so far but several are already repeat customers, Vincent said. However, with about 150 drinking-water reservoirs in Ohio, over 11,000 nationwide and more overseas—plus recreational lakes that could use the technology—a worldwide market is possible, he said.
“This is a small dream come true, and I have high hopes it will be a large dream come true,” said Vincent, recognizing the support he has received from Kane, BGSU President Carol Cartwright and Dr. John Folkins, former director of TTS. Blue Water now has a full-time employee—with a master’s degree in geology from BGSU—who makes the images the company sells, and its CEO is Milt Baker, former director of entrepreneurial programs at the University.
“I think it has Google-type potential,” added Vincent, saying he has already turned down one prospective Blue Water buyer.
Noting that the state is asking higher education to be part of economic development, Snavely said BGSU has more commercialization projects in the pipeline with different technologies in various departments. “It’s very important that the University has made it through the first pass,” with Blue Water, she said.
“This is not something most universities have gotten right,” according to Vincent, saying BGSU is now adept at technology transfer. “They’ve made it easier than most universities to get technology out there.”