Bringing University Innovations to the Marketplace


By Kathryn Stephens (’17)

In today’s economy, it’s becoming harder and harder to turn ideas into successful companies; but Mary Lou Bourne is working to reverse that trend.

“I want to help people with their ideas. I want to make ideas happen right here in the valley,” said Bourne. “It sounds a little altruistic—I get that—but it’s my passion.”

Mary Lou Bourne is James Madison University’s Director of Technology Innovation and Economic Development, a position she has held since the office was founded in 2005. Originally, it was known as the Office of Technology Transfer, reflecting the office’s role of transferring patented JMU innovations to outside companies through licensing deals. Once licensed, these outside companies could commercialize the technology without further university involvement. 

“Suddenly we realized—Wait, we’re missing opportunities,” explained Bourne. “Innovation is the real key part of the work, not the transaction of the licensing deal. We have these innovations; why not start our own companies?”

And that’s just what they’ve done. Blue Vigil, a Harrisonburg-based startup company, was founded in partnership with Bourne’s office and recently landed $250,000 in seed money to commercialize their hovering observation platform technology. The startup has been funded entirely by local private investors and the company has promised to keep at least half of their jobs in Harrisonburg over the next three years. A JMU instructor has been hired to oversee prototype development and the university will provide space for Blue Vigil to conduct research. Even students will have a chance to get involved through research assistantships. Blue Vigil is a big win for local economic development, and none of it would be possible without the partnerships that Bourne and her colleagues have been able to foster. 

Bourne’s passion for partnership has led to her recent appointment as the President of Virginia’s University-Based Economic Development (UBED) group. The group, which meets quarterly, is comprised of higher education professionals from all over the state—presidents, provosts, executive directors—all with the goal of building economic vitality in Virginia. UBED believes that universities have a responsibility to invest in the economic development of their communities and they are working to pool their resources towards that end.

“It’s so hard to build successful companies. I recognize from my own experiences in the past that the resources we needed just weren’t there. We as a community need to give our entrepreneurs every shot at success we can. We need a network of people, and that’s what I’m building,” said Bourne.

“The goal is to have everybody working together to make things happen here—the businesses with the universities. I want students to say, ‘Wow, startups are happening here! I can stay here after graduation and work on my company because I see I have resources and the network to do it.’ That’s the big picture. That’s the vision that keeps me doing my job.”

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Published: Friday, September 25, 2015

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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