Purdue courts Silicon Valley partnerships

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At a meeting in the sanctum sanctorum of Silicon Valley—at Cisco Systems’ San Jose headquarters—Purdue University researchers last month dared boast of their expertise in IT, electric vehicle technology and social media.

The Purdue contingent could have been labeled blasphemers, unaware of the resplendent glory of Google, Tesla and Facebook, just down the road.

john boyle Boyle

John Boyle, head of Purdue’s new West Coast office and organizer of this meeting, knows well in whose kingdom his academic supplicants dare tread.

“Silicon Valley in particular, and California in general, consume what Purdue produces,” said Boyle, referring to Purdue’s wealth of engineers and inventors.

But, he added, “it’s not an exaggeration to say a lot of people out here don’t know where Purdue is located.”

Silicon Valley companies might not know it yet, but they need Purdue.

After all, that university 1,881 miles and three time zones away gave the world Neil Armstrong, Orville Redenbacher and wrestler Dick the Bruiser.

Actually, Silicon Valley needs people like Purdue’s Gerhard Klimeck, director of the Network for Computational Nanotechnology, or James Caruthers, director of the Indiana Advanced Electric Vehicle Training and Education Consortium. They were among the brain trust speaking to a group of over 200 people gathered at Cisco. It was the second symposium the West Coast office has held since it was created a year ago.

The office, at NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, Calif., aims to commercialize Purdue-developed technology through partnerships with private industry.

Kissinger Life sciences entrepreneur Peter Kissinger

Ideally, it might even result in Silicon Valley companies’ setting up shop back in Indiana. The efforts might also put Indiana firms on the radar of the plethora of venture capital firms clustered in California.

“We’re going to try to cultivate all the partnerships we can,” said Richard Buckius, Purdue’s vice president for research.

Purdue for years has worked with NASA’s Ames research facility on various types of government work. But Purdue’s seeds planted recently in the commercial fields of Silicon Valley have yet to sprout.

Boyle didn’t come on board full time until July. He’s been feverishly working his years of contacts in the valley, which include relationships established while he worked at Hewlett-Packard, 3Com, VeriFone, General Motors and at various venture capital firms.

The 1980 graduate in electrical engineering at Purdue also was a city councilor and vice mayor of nearby Menlo Park, Calif.

“It’s almost like my job now is as a matchmaker or dating service,” Boyle said.

Boyle reckons he’s cranked out some 6,000 e-mails and 4,000 snail-mail greetings and has held countless meetings around the valley to spread the Purdue gospel. He’s been trying to boost Purdue’s visibility among a core group of 300 technology companies in the valley.

“It’s over 10,000 people who had the opportunity to at least learn about Purdue” over the last year, he said.

That doesn’t count the estimated 18,000 Purdue alumni who live in California already—the third-largest concentration outside of Indiana and Illinois. That includes four of five Purdue graduates who work at places such as electric-car maker Tesla, in nearby Palo Alto.

So what does the Purdue West Coast office have to show for itself in the first year?

Technically, there have been no deals—at least as far as formal partnerships or technology licensing agreements.

Boyle won’t go into detail, but says a handful of startups at Purdue have been having discussions with companies and venture firms in the valley.

One company has teamed with Purdue to apply for U.S. Department of Defense funding for a project. That company has been talking about the potential to locate operations in Indiana.

“There are at least a half-dozen projects,” Boyle said. In 2012, “I think we’ll have something we can explicitly talk about.”

An Indiana life sciences entrepreneur said such efforts take time.

“The Purdue initiative in California is an experiment. It deserves a minimum of five years of enthusiastic effort,” said Peter Kissinger, founder of West Lafayette-based Bioanalytical Systems and co-founder of medical-device firm Phlebotics Inc.

As Kissinger sees it, Indiana has been a “bit provincial” in a time of a knowledge-based economy that knows no borders. Beyond links with California, Kissinger said he sees the Silicon Valley as a good link with the Pacific Rim, more generally, along with better connections to funding sources.

Two early-stage firms he works with have had a hard time obtaining funding in Indiana. “We have great ideas to share with people interested in investing. Given the relative risk aversion in Indiana, it makes a lot of sense to shop our ideas to people who take more chances.”

Both he and Boyle also point to the potential Purdue connections could have in helping attract a West Coast firm to put a unit in Indiana, given the state’s lower cost of living and Purdue’s research base.

Purdue is one of a handful of research universities to plant a flag in Silicon Valley. Perhaps furthest along is Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, which opened an office at the NASA facility in 2002.

Besides seeking partnerships with companies in the valley, CMU has expanded its Mountain View office into a campus offering master’s- and doctorate-level programs in IT, software engineering, and electric and computer engineering.

“I wouldn’t say we wouldn’t do that, but it’s not in our initial intent” for the West Coast office, said Purdue’s Buckius.

The office has a $400,000 annual budget and is being supported by the Purdue Research Foundation and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. The IEDC provided a $500,000 grant.

The Purdue office consists of two rooms at Ames, along with another employee who serves as a marketing and administrative assistant.

“We’ve set up the office to include a couple of work cubicles for visiting faculty or potentially for future Purdue entrepreneurs who might need a temporary base,” Boyle said.•

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