Douglas Hockstad was recently promoted to chief of Tech Launch Arizona, which helps UA researchers bring their inventions to market. Photo by James Patrick.
engineer: noun. A person trained and skilled in the design, construction and use of engines or machines. Also, a skillful manager.
Source: Random House Webster’s College Dictionary
Douglas Hockstad, the newly minted chief of Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), has lived both definitions of “engineer,” although he didn’t plan to be either. Early life choices have landed him on the top spot in the University of Arizona’s efforts to bring its faculty and staff’s research and inventions to market.
Hockstad was promoted in April following the retirement of David Allen, who spent five years leading the successful rebuild of UA’s technology commercialization efforts.
From 2013 through March 2018, TLA has developed more than 1,200 invention disclosures, the first step toward patent protection, and has contracts for 436 licenses and options, from which 66 startups have spun off. Royalties and patent reimbursements to the university have reached more than $14 million.
TLA is updating its five-year strategic plan to:
• patent intellectual property out of the university, then license those patents to existing companies or UA startups.
• develop a regional environment in which inventors, entrepreneurs and existing businesses succeed.
For now, Hockstad wants to stay the course. “Tech Launch Arizona is very successful,” he says. “I don’t want to break that.”
Turning ideas into products and services helps the local economy by establishing new businesses that provide local jobs, he says. The complex concepts that drive TLA often aren’t easy to explain to researchers, whose focus is on their work, and to the general public, which isn’t immersed in venture capital, business incubation and patent application.
Hockstad’s background makes him suited to straddling the communities of science, technology, business and public policy. He was Allen’s first hire at TLA, specifically tasked with working with UA inventors and researchers. It was the same kind of work he did for 12 years for the University of Michigan, which at the time focused on licensing software and engineering products.
For 11 years before that he worked in private-sector sales support and product management, helping clients buy and use software products. He did corporate communications for a time, too.
Hockstad admits he’s a little surprised by his career path. Born and raised in tiny Escanaba, Michigan, he wanted to get into the family profession. His grandfather owned a pharmacy and his dad was a doctor. Like his brother, he aimed to attend medical school.
At the University of Michigan, he became intrigued by the new biomedical program. But he really got excited about computer programming. “It’s the puzzle-solving that I enjoyed,” he recalls. “I was always good at math.” Switching gears, he earned a bachelor of science in computer engineering.
After college he joined a software company and learned another thing about himself. “I realized when I got into the career that I didn’t want to be a programmer,” he says. “I like to work with the customer. I’ve always been the extravert engineer rather than an introvert engineer.”
He took the Tucson job because it was a new challenge in familiar work. As TLA assistant vice president, Hockstad helped UA faculty and staff identify marketable research and inventions and guide them through the many steps to get their work to market. Despite invigorating the process, he admits initially there wasn’t much of a demand for TLA.
Researchers are so narrowly focused on their work that they don’t think about what can be translated into marketable products. “Our job that first year was marketing to UA faculty,” he says.
Part of that marketing is helping researchers understand the impact of commercializing their discoveries. “It’s not specifically that they’re going to get rich,” Hockstad explains. “It’s not that the impact of research is publication and education. This is a way to have a different type of impact — for society.”
Take Regulonix. The startup was founded by researchers in the UA College of Medicine. They invented a class of non-addictive compounds that could replace opioids to fight pain. TLA helped patent the compounds and develop a business strategy.
Hockstad likes to use SinfoníaRx as a TLA success story. The company sells software that helps patients manage taking medications. It’s based on technology out of the UA College of Pharmacy. Founded in 2006 with a license from UA, the startup used TLA resources to find a business partner who helped accelerate growth. Last fall it was purchased by Tabula Rasa Healthcare. “We’re having an effect on getting things from the lab to the market,” Hockstad says with pride.
In the five years that TLA has become an established presence in Tucson’s economy, Hockstad has come into his own as a Tucsonan. His two youngest children graduated from Catalina Foothills High School, and he has discovered he prefers dry heat over the humid Midwest summers he left behind.
He’s gotten used to prickly plants and living with wildlife, although scorpions still freak him out. And he’s an avid UA Wildcat fan, with one caveat: “My only hope,” he says, “Is that Michigan does not play Arizona in any bowls.”
— Elena Acoba