O’Donnell Recipient Profile: Van Truskett, Ph.D., Executive Director, Texas Innovation Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Van Truskett

Van Truskett, Ph.D. is a nationally recognized technology and business leader, currently leading the Texas Innovation Center (TxIC) at The University of Texas at Austin.

In 2016, Dr. Truskett received the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Technology Innovation for her instrumental role in developing cutting-edge inkjet-printing products installed into nanoimprint lithography tools. The discovery provided higher resolution nanopatterning solutions at a lower cost of ownership compared to competitors. She played a critical role on the innovative team, developing Molecular Imprints, a startup that Canon later acquired in 2014 to form Canon Nanotechnologies.

After seeing success in the startup community, she now works to help bridge the gap between academic research and technical innovation and commercialization. TAMEST spoke with Dr. Truskett about her O’Donnell Award recognition and what we can do to help foster innovation and business in Texas.

Tell us a little bit about your pathway into technology and innovation?

I would say I had no idea that I would ever be doing what I’m doing today, nor did I realize that there was such a thing as technology commercialization for university research.

I just thought that I would be a traditional chemical engineer and work in the chemical industry. The plan was to work in an oil and gas facility or chemical plant. However, I ended up getting my Ph.D. and working for a startup that focused on building semiconductor manufacturing tools, which can be a complex industry to gain adoption.

After the startup company got acquired, I stayed for a couple of years. Once I was close to 15 years in the industry, it was getting very routine, and I wasn’t feeling challenged anymore. So, I took a year off to figure out my next adventure and did a little bit of soul searching.

Your soul searching led you to become the Executive Director of the Texas Innovation Center at UT Austin. How does your current role allow you to inject “startup” innovation into the academic world? 

When I came upon this position, it was actually a TAMEST Member at UT Austin who showed me what technology innovation could look like in an academic setting.

I now credit Executive Vice President and Provost Sharon Wood, Ph.D. (NAE) for introducing me to this facet of entrepreneurship. As well as encouraging me, a UT ChE alum – Hook’em!, to return to campus to work with our faculty and our startups.

I have startup experience, academic research experience and also happen to be the spouse of a faculty member. I feel like I understand the whole spectrum and understand what faculty researchers are juggling day-to-day. I come at this job understanding how to pace things accordingly and give the right resources.

One of the unique things about the Texas Innovation Center that was not available on campus before is a startup community that is a one-stop-shop to learn and get the resources you need to build a company with very practical mechanics.

We have a Startup-In-A-Box program, providing the building blocks to learn and launch a UT-based company. It provides gratis consulting with attorneys on business incorporation and deciphering a term sheet, HR and CPA firms to discuss the structure and compliance of a one-person to 10+ company, turnkey manufacturing and design firms to give scope on timeline and cost for scaling a lab prototype to a product, and other services as the need comes up. The goal is to accelerate the learning and understanding of what it means and takes to build a company. Having the technology alone is not enough. The marketing, operations, and execution are crucial.

There is our monthly Coffee Club, my favorite event we host, as it brings together our research faculty, graduate students, and staff/administrators across all schools and colleges at UT Austin. We get an eclectic mix of people – engineering, natural sciences, liberal arts, communications, library services, architecture, medical school, business school, geosciences, development. Every month we get newcomers and our regulars attending. Occasional we have special guests like an investor or someone from a government agency or industry. We are learning about each other and fostering collaboration or at least putting a good foot forward on this.

Oh! It was amazing to have Marian Flores (TAMEST Marketing and Communications Specialist) join the conversation at last month’s coffee club. I hope to see your team again.

Why is it important to have a physical space for TxIC in an increasingly virtual world?

I think we’re all ready to be re-connected in tangible ways. TxIC is happy to be a place to help foster community and this new culture for technology commercialization. What we tell people, in general, is that we’re here to help. For us it is important to have a place we can really build a culture and serve as a gathering point.

You start with us, but you don’t necessarily need to stay with us because we’ve got “Forty Acres” here at UT Austin. We want you to develop roots with every inch of this campus and with as many different teams and groups and organizations as possible.

It’s wonderful to see who pops up and the kind of conversations that people start. Our co-working space has become a fertile ground for collaboration and for networking.

What was your experience receiving the 2016 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Technology Innovation?

It was a huge surprise. I am completely honored and humbled to be recognized by TAMEST.

Its community of leaders and scientists and engineers and doctors who are on the leading edge of research and at the heart of policy that is going on in Texas and the world. Being part of TAMEST gives me a better glimpse at the bigger picture of what impact means.

TAMEST widens the scope of understanding and shows the larger footprint of research and public policy and your own personal responsibility behind it. It is an amazing community of people, and I am still in disbelief that I have been included.

Do you feel like the O’Donnell Awards impact the trajectory of the recipient’s career? 

The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards are the most prestigious state award recognizing Texas-based researchers for their pioneering work. To be recognized as a ‘rising star,’ means you are known as an expert or leader in your field but the nuance in it is a responsibility to pay it forward. That opens up opportunities to share yourself as well as to learn and collaborate with people in ways that you have not been aware of before.

It’s definitely made me think more thoughtfully about what impact means and how the connections through this network can accelerate an endeavor.

I would love to nominate and am looking into the process this year. I love the idea of how the concept of technology innovation has shifted in our state thanks to startups and organizations like the Texas Innovation Center. It is exciting to see how much impact a practical and seemingly small technological innovation can have in our world.

What advice would you give to those thinking of getting into STEM fields? 

I would say don’t let STEM intimidate you. At the heart of STEM is us figuring out how systems work and how to utilize and transform that knowledge into concrete outcomes that are meaningful to our lives.

STEM is challenging because we are trying to problem solve and develop and implement a solution. Well, once you work that out then it’s in our knowledge base.

What makes Texas innovative? 

I think Texas has exceptional universities that anchor innovation and provides the pipeline that is necessary for stimulating and sustaining the economy. Our universities are a source of diverse thinking and perspectives, a rich pool of talent and deep tech know-how for solving today’s challenges. I think all of these elements together create the perfect recipe for maintaining a thriving and supported community.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I just feel very humbled by the work we do at Texas Innovation Center. The research being commercialized are Big Tech with Big Impact. This further fosters a culture and community of collaborative research and entrepreneurship for supporting tech commercialization in our Longhorn Tech Nation ecosystem.

I look forward to coming to the center every day. So come learn more about the exciting happenings at UT Austin!


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