In addition to licensing out technologies to established companies, CTT has recently been helping to develop new businesses around Penn's technologies, negotiating equity positions in these start-up ventures for the University. CTT's first spin-off company to go public (in 1996) was Neose Technologies in Horsham, Pa., which synthesizes complex sugars known as oligosaccharides for use in manufacturing baby formulas, fighting infections, and preventing animal-transplant rejection in humans ("Gazetteer," November 1996). Other recent start-ups include BBI Pharmaceuticals, Xcyte Therapies, Inc., Transom Technologies, Inc., and Basis Learning.
Basis Learning, co-founded by Slattery and Tony Jannetta, W'56, will provide training programs to managed-healthcare organizations, corporate development, schools, and the military to immunize high-risk people against depression by changing how they think about events. Seligman's research shows that a person's explanatory style -- how they "talk" to themselves during setbacks -- can affect their academic, athletic, and professional success; their immune system and physical health; and their ability to stave off depression over a lifetime. He and his colleagues have studied insurance agents, children, competitive swimmers, Penn students -- and even politicians' stump speeches -- to gain clues into the workings of pessimism and optimism. But more importantly, Seligman has proven that pessimists can use simple techniques to develop a more positive explanatory style -- and experience the benefits that natural-born optimists enjoy.
Seligman serves on the scientific advisory panel of Basis Learning, but holds no decision-making position, in accordance with the University's conflict of interest policy.
His biggest concern about commercializing his research was quality control. "If the group that Lou had found was the Ringling Brothers, then I would have said no ... but the group was not only successful venture capitalists, but people who understood the academic enterprise." In fact, two of his "star Ph.D.'s" are vice presidents in the company, which means "the academic integrity and quality of this stuff will be first rate." The company has also allocated $300,000 for research; Seligman hopes it will use some of the money to study whether learned-optimism therapy can actually help reduce healthcare costs.
Seligman says this will be a training company unlike any other. His former Ph.D. students have trained other cognitive psychologists to go into school districts, businesses, and other organizations and show "lay" people how to deliver the program to others. Most corporate training sessions only measure how people feel at the end of a session, Seligman adds. "From an academic point of view, that's laughable. Industry is so hard-headed about so many things and so tender about judging the effects of training. We do a follow-up ... The question is, does it improve in the long run?" What he has found is that the benefits of learned optimism don't wear off with time. In fact, with children, they seem to increase.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 3/17/98