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Faculty Entrepreneurs
Joe Fink: Leading the Entrepreneurial Charge at UK

by Jeff Worley

The University of Kentucky's Joe Fink is a kind of academic shortstop.

"I spend a lot of time fielding ideas," he says, leaning back in his desk chair by the open window in a spotlight of welcome April sun. "One of the great things about this job is that there's no shortage of ideas coming out of researchers' minds and labs here. The challenge is to take these ideas and move them along toward fruitful commercialization."

Well, that's one challenge Fink has. Another, it would seem, would be for him to remember all of his job titles and affiliations at the university. Question: How many people does this sound like?

Senior Associate Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Professor of Pharmacy, Professor of Health Administration, Professor of Public Health, Professor in the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration, Faculty Associate with the UK Center for Health Services Management and Research, and Faculty Associate with the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research.

Yes, the unlikely answer is one.

Fink laughs. "I admit I feel very schizophrenic on certain days, but a lot of it is related. I can easily apply what I do or learn to various positions. And the variety makes it continuously interesting."

In one of his overlapping roles, he is leading the charge to promote entrepreneurship within UK and throughout Kentucky by working with faculty, staff and students to optimize opportunities to develop intellectual property and relationships with corporations that result in sponsored research and licensing. A number of UK faculty in the past few years have been able to get their business up and running in the university's Advanced Science and Technology Commercialization Center (ASTeCC), a high-tech business incubator located in the heart of the campus. This 80,000 square-foot building, which opened its doors in 1994, allows start-up faculty labs and businesses to develop and flourish. ASTeCC has now "graduated" 23 start-ups.

"There is so much more infrastructure in place now than in the past for faculty who have an idea and want to run with it," Fink says. "When I came here 20 years ago, I saw faculty who were interested in commercialization but were reluctant to do anything about it because they didn't know where to turn." Today, with new emphasis on entrepreneurial activity from the top down—President Todd has begun and developed two companies himself in the past 20 years—faculty who want to start a company have several places to turn for assistance and advice, Fink says.

Along with ASTeCC, there's now the Von Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship in the Hardymon Building. The center helps faculty develop or link up with science and technology-centered, knowledge-based companies. In addition, the Kentucky Small Business Development Center, a network of 14 service centers, has helped more small businesses get started and grow this past year than in any prior year. Nearly 3,000 clients received one-on-one consulting there last year.

Central to all of this relatively new infrastructure is UK's intellectual property development office, says Fink, who works closely with Don Keach, office director, and Katherine Adams, who provides legal services for the office. This team helps faculty through the patent and licensing process.

"An important change in dealing with intellectual property now is that we can be a lot more flexible," Fink says. "We can customize licensing deals, for example. So instead of doing royalty-only arrangements with licensing, we can consider other avenues for the faculty entrepreneur, such as 'milestone payments'—payments at clearly-defined stages of product development." This works especially well, he says, with pharmaceuticals.

Another possibility—one that can help mitigate the risk of starting a business—is for UK to take part ownership in the company. "Now we can work something out where the University of Kentucky Research Foundation actually owns part of the company," says Fink. "And we can mix and match these various configurations. Every situation is unique, so we often ask, 'What works best for you? How would you like to do this?'"

This "tailoring of the deal," as Fink calls it, is primarily a response to what he sees as the biggest challenge for start-up companies—early-stage investment. "Honestly, the business climate in Kentucky right now isn't as good as it was a year ago, which is a reflection of the general business climate throughout the country. Small, start-up outfits continue to struggle in central Kentucky and throughout the commonwealth with very early stage investment money."

Despite this and other challenges, some faculty members are doing quite well with their businesses, Fink says. Athenic Systems, the focus of a feature article in the Lexington Herald-Leader in September 2000, is one success story.

Founded by former UK forestry professor Tom Kimmerer, this company weds technology to trees. The technology comes in the form of the global positioning system (GPS) and hand-held computers, and the company is all about helping businesses such as golf courses, arboretums, zoos, and horse farms manage their landscapes.

"Our service allows someone to manage a collection of objects in an outdoor space as if it were a collection in a warehouse," says Kimmerer. "The general manager of most any country club knows where every ball is in the clubhouse, but hasn't a clue how much he's spending on land management and what the vegetation is worth."

Here's how Athenic's technology works. Using a global positioning system, every tree, shrub and bush is located, documented and placed in a computer database in downtown Lexington. The information is used to keep track of maintenance provided for the object, such as spraying for insects, trimming or adding mulch.

"This system helps you track your assets," says Fink. "Using it, you can figure out pretty quickly how big a tree will be in, say, 20 years on a golf course. Will it block the hole? Using virtual reality software, they can 'grow' that tree and let you see it. It's really slick." Athenic Systems, which worked through UK to find its feet, now employs about 10 people in downtown Lexington.

Fink admits he's come a long way from the small Pennsylvania town of Tyrone (population circa 5,000). He was headed into pharmacy at an early age, he says—from the time he was 11, he worked in his dad's pharmacy.

"I grew up with it and saw all the great things my dad did to help people in ways not involving medication," Fink says. "People who couldn't pay cash brought in chickens or eggs to pay their bill, and Dad was always flexible on that kind of thing.

"I went to pharmacy school at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science with the intention of taking over his pharmacy," Fink recalls. "In my second year of college I hit some killer courses—organic chemistry and physics—that made me want to leave pharmacy school." Fink, dismayed, went to see the dean, who looked at Joe's transcript and pronounced him a misfit.

"Yeah," Fink chuckles, "he pointed out that my grades were a whole lot better in history and English than in science and math—the exact opposite profile of the other students there." The dean sent Fink to talk with a pharmacy professor with a law degree, who showed him a way to channel his pharmacy studies in that direction. Which is the "short version," Fink says of how he wound up with both a degree in pharmacy and a law degree.

Though these two meetings were propitious and helped shape a direction for Fink, he says the main thing that kept his interest in college was activities outside the classroom.

"I'm a huge advocate of extracurricular activities. I got involved in the national organization of pharmacy students and became the treasurer of the Pennsylvania Association of College Students." Maybe his excitement about participating in these organizations has a little to do with the fact that this is how he met his wife.

"I'd be the last to deny that," Fink says, a smile easing on to his face. "I met Renie when the national organization had its annual convention in 1978. She was at Ohio State. So now, I tell my students: Go to the national meeting; you never know what might happen!"

Joe and Renie, also a pharmacist, have two grown sons living in Shelbyville, Kentucky, and Olympia, Washington.

Asked what he does in his spare time, Fink replies, "Spare time? What's that?" Then he admits that a favorite activity, at present, is doting on his first grandchild. "He was born last October to my younger son and his wife in Oregon. Would you like to see a few hundred pictures!?"

When he isn't wearing one of his many UK hats, Fink also likes to read historical novels. "I'm an amateur historian of the Rocky Mountain fur trade era in American history—Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and so forth—and read and do research on that as time permits."

But time doesn't permit very much of this historical sleuthing. Ten-to-12-hour days at UK and on the road promoting UK research and entrepreneurship curtail his leisure reading, but Fink says he's used to the long days.

"I have a wonderful job here," he says. "I get to work with the whole continuum of academic activity, and I get to bring together groups of people to achieve a common goal. I get to see people's dreams get realized."