From Company President to Professor
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Kent Murphy has seen
university spin-off firms from three sides: as a graduate student
starting up a company, as a faculty member, and as president
of one of Virginia Tech's most successful spin-offs. Murphy was
not a professor who started a business however, but a company
president who became a professor.
Murphy is president of Luna
Innovations, Inc. (formerly Fiber & Sensor Technologies),
which develops advanced instrumentation and materials technologies.
The firm's products include highly sensitive biosensors, harsh
environment sensors, novel materials for use in microcomposites
and high displacement actuators, microelectromechanical devices
such as optical switches, micropumps and optical interconnects,
as well as thin films for polymer electronic and biochemical
Luna's biosensor business is currently growing very rapidly.
Luna biosensors are marketed for diagnostic applications, drug
discovery, process monitoring, environmental monitoring, bioremediation,
and point-of-care testing.
Luna has experienced increasing revenues every year for 10 years.
Revenues in 1999, nearly $9 million, were double those of 1998.
The firm has 52 full-time employees, 12 part-time employees,
and currently has 12 job openings. Luna is a large supporter
of research at Virginia Tech and is second only to General Motors
as a nongovernment funder.
When Murphy was a graduate student at Tech, he was one of seven
founders who started F&S in 1990. At the time, F&S was
a part-time venture to build instrumentation based on fiber optics
research. "People had read our results in published papers,
and wanted to buy our instrumentation," Murphy recalled.
"At first they were giving us $5,000 contracts to build
the little EFPI boxes. That's not really appropriate university
research, so we were encouraged by the Virginia Center for Innovative
Technology (CIT) and the university to start a company to market
the instrumentation," he said.
"I had tried to start another company that hadn't turned
out well and was very interested in trying again," he said.
After a very successful beginning, the company grew and needed
a change of management. Murphy was voted president and ended
as majority shareholder.
In 1992, a year after becoming president, Murphy earned his doctorate.
"I then had to decide whether to continue as president of
F&S or join the Virginia Tech faculty. I didn't see why I
couldn't do both."
Murphy joined the faculty and was awarded tenure in 1995, during
which time he was managing the fast growth at F&S. "I
worked more than 90 hours a week on a regular basis," he
said. "I had a great time."
Working at both was synergistic, he said. "The business
and my professorial duties were related. My university research
was geared toward commercial activities. Moreover, the whole
experience of being in the company helped build contacts in the
industry, which helped tremendously in my research and funding."
The time, however, came out of his family life, he acknowledged.
As business heated up at Luna last year, Murphy chose to take
a leave of absence from the university. "I was starting
to pull 100-hour weeks. You cannot do all three. I had been doing
two and neglected my family - I was unwilling to do that any
longer," he explained.
Murphy said he is certain that faculty start-up firms are good
for the university, but that the rules and policies need to be
determined and spelled out. "The university needs to benefit
more by capitalizing on ideas," he said. "When I started
at Tech, all the people with all these great ideas would publish
papers, which was considered the end result. The technology was
left on the shelf or left for others to capitalize and reap the
benefits. Coming from industry, I just do not understand that
philosophy. If the university can capitalize on its own ideas,
it can get the funding it needs and improve facilities and programs
across all the curricula."
One of the obstacles to the university capitalizing on its ideas
is the research culture, he said. "As a professor, I was
encouraged to publish, publish, publish. In a university, you
are rewarded on how much you publish. However, my background
was industrial, which tells you first to protect your ideas,
get a patent, and then publish. I've had some tough decisions
to make between the need to publish while knowing the need to
build a patent portfolio, which is what builds value."
As a professor, Murphy signed over all his royalties to Virginia
Tech to be used for student support. "I very much would
like to see the university benefit," he said. "From
the beginning of a spin-off firm, we should be trying to benefit
what is going on for education. Royalties are just a part of
the benefits spin-offs provide to Tech. There are many other
benefits that can be achieved."
from nearby start-ups in two ways: by being funded for graduate
studies and having the opportunity to get industrial work experience,
he explained. Local spin-offs are also the ideal place for undergraduate
co-op jobs, he said.
Not only does the university benefit from spin-offs, but the
companies benefit also, he said. "Extremely talented individuals
on campus are joining Luna - people with great ideas interested
in seeing them commercialized." Currently, Luna is funding
projects in physics, chemical engineering, aerospace, chemistry,
engineering science and materials, and materials engineering,
in addition to ECpE.
"Tech should be helping to build the state economy, and
spinning off companies to capitalize on its research is one way
to do that."