Innovator Talks About Getting University Research Into Business

Published in UT San Diego, January 27, 2014

TTO: Those letters often strike fear into the hearts of scientists and venture capitalists. They stand for Tech Transfer Office, the place Marianyou have to negotiate if you want to commercialize technology developed at a university or research institute.

San Diego’s future success in the innovation economy depends in part on mining these new technologies. So let’s meet Marian Bartlett, co-founder and lead researcher for Emotient, winner of Connect’s 2013 Most Innovative New Products Award in the software category for FACET, which translates facial expressions into actionable information, enabling companies to create new levels of customer engagement.

Q: Did you start out to be a scientist?

A: I had some preconceived notions that women and girls didn’t like math. Then in college I realized that I was good at it and became a math major. After college, I wanted to use my math skills with something human oriented so I contacted everyone in Boston in the visual perception field, and I was hired as a research assistant at MIT. Then I came to UCSD, where I earned a Ph.D. in cognitive science and psychology in 1998. (Her thesis became the basis of Emotient.)

Q: When did you first learn about business?

A: At UCSD, I was fortunate that one of my professors was Robert Hecht-Nielsen, the co-founder of HNC Software (HNC developed software used by the credit card and insurance industries to detect fraud and was purchased by Fair, Isaac and Co. in 2002.). Robert bridged academia and the business world, and he taught that in his classes. He had us write SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) proposals as part of our class on neural networks. Also, my graduate adviser, Terry Sejnowksi, had previously started a business, Softmax, with some of his former postdocs that was later purchased by Qualcomm. So I was able to see firsthand how novel research can transform into a successful business.

Q: Were other women in the program?

A: In experimental psychology just under half (of the) students were women. When I moved over to the neural network machine-learning lab at Salk, I was the only one. It was aggressive, exciting and motivating.

Q: What was it like being one of a few women?

A: On rare occasions I thought that some people perceived my male graduate peers as being smarter or more capable, but I also benefited from being one of the few women in machine learning, so people remembered me.

Q: When did you start a company?

A: In 2008 with four colleagues, we started Machine Perception Technologies, which released a toolbox for the academic community called CERT — computer expression recognition toolbox. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Seth Neiman, a senior partner at Crosspoint Venture Partners, tried the demo on the website. In 2012, he became our lead investor, and we changed the company name to Emotient.

Q: Did you leave your research professor position at UCSD?

A: I wanted to remain part time at UCSD because I enjoy research, and I had commitments to students, I was the principal investigator on $3 million to $4 million in grants at the time and had $10 million total since 2001. UCSD’s policies regarding intellectual property are interpreted very broadly and contain language often called the umbilical clause. If you are a faculty member, even if you do research on your own time and in separate facilities, UCSD will claim ownership. The result is to force out people who develop ideas. I was required by the investors to take a full leave or there would have been no company.

(Neil’s note: I think it is sad that Bartlett had to leave UCSD. The whole issue of how a university tries to monetize intellectual property will be a topic for another column.)

Q: What’s different between an academic setting and a startup?

A: At UCSD, the primary objective was to generate research papers that had the highest impact on our field. A complex research paper doesn’t generate revenue. Pitching to venture capitalists and actually selling software were new skills for our team. We needed to blend our science skills with the business skills of Seth Neiman and our CEO, Ken Denman.

Q: What advice would you give to other academics who want to commercialize their technology?

A: Team up with the right partners with deep experience in the business world unless you want to spend a lot of time writing SBIR proposals.

We love Bartlett’s story. Clearly she is a determined individual passionate about her work, and she understands the importance of knowing what you don’t know. We hope that universities and research institutes will revisit and revise their intellectual property policies so that inventive scientists like Bartlett can maintain a foothold in both academia and business.

Rule No. 338: The best and brightest often come from research. Let’s loosen up the chains that bind.

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