UD leadership acknowledges campus solution seekers who push the envelope of invention
Persistent. Problem solver. Patient in the face of failure.
These are just a few words that describe innovators, the curious among us that see possibility in problems and seek solutions that serve society.
The University of Delaware is home to many such bright minds.
As the nation celebrates National Innovation Day on Tuesday, Feb. 16, UD leadership recognized the innovation and commercialization efforts of 232 inventors hailing from all corners of our campus community — faculty, researchers and students.
“The past year has been a dramatic reminder of the incredible value and enduring power of the creative process,” UD President Dennis Assanis told inventors in a video message. “In whatever field you work, your commitment to innovation is essential to the role that the University of Delaware is playing as a premier research university in today’s society. I sincerely admire your dedication and your diligence. Thank you for helping us build a vibrant and exciting culture of innovation here at the University of Delaware.”
Assanis joined Provost Robin Morgan and Charlie Riordan, vice president for research, scholarship and innovation, in the video message sent to inventors. The recognition, which typically is marked with an in-person event, was conducted virtually this year due to the ongoing pandemic.
Provost Morgan called UD innovators “champions of innovation and discovery” and beacons of hope.
“As inventors you’ve converted your ideas into products of change and impact. This took tenacity and drive, coupled with patience and persistence, and today we celebrate your success,” said Morgan. “I’m grateful for the examples you set for your colleagues across campus and especially for the example you set for students—they are the next generation of innovators and scholars.”
The important act of invention
Invention plays an important role in advancing society. It also contributes to the economy.
According to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), between 1996-2017, innovations developed at American universities contributed up to $865 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product and created or supported 5.9 million jobs.
Since 2011, UD researchers have generated 474 inventions and secured 131 patents, 41% of which included a woman inventor. During that same time frame, 10 members of the UD community have been inducted into the National Academy of Inventors for their discoveries.
In 2020, the UD research community spent more than $171.5 million in sponsored research funding, a 6.7% increase over FY2019, to explore a wide range of topics across the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences. Despite the pandemic that shuttered academic research laboratories, UD researchers secured 11 patents during 2020, as well as 66 provisional patent applications and utility patents.
Patents are a way for inventors to protect their commercially useful discoveries and prevent others from making, using, selling or importing the invention for a limited period, usually around 20 years. Provisional patent applications are a temporary, one-year protection for inventors that establish a date on which the invention was made. This allows researchers time to develop their invention and consider whether it is patentable and has commercial viability. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, utility patents “protect the way an article is used” and how it works.
Five UD-developed technologies were licensed, and two startups were launched out of University research last year. Additionally, 46 new ideas were brought by UD inventors to the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships (OEIP) and formally protected with invention disclosures to allow the researchers time to pursue their ideas.
Providing an environment that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship is among UD’s top priorities. OEIP, Horn Entrepreneurship and Delaware Innovation Space, the business incubator that is a public-private partnership of the state of Delaware, DuPont and UD, are among the units that support this growing ecosystem.
Delaware ranks fourth in U.S. academic science and engineering article output (per 1,000 doctorate holders), according to the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2020. UD is classified as a doctoral institution with very high research activity, a designation accorded to fewer than 3% of U.S. colleges.
All of this activity points to a dedicated and resilient inventor community committed to advancing technologies to address critical societal needs.
“Your discoveries, reduced to practice and commercialization, are having a profound impact on society, whether it be in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, wearable devices, new chemistries and many other fields,” said Riordan. “Your discoveries are making a difference in the world. Really exciting times lie ahead.”
Technologies and solutions
According to AUTM, “when industries license technologies from universities it creates collaborative partnerships that move new discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace.”
This is the case for UD-1022, a beneficial bacterium developed by Harsh Bais, associate professor of plant and soil sciences, and Janine Sherrier, a former UD faculty member. The UD-patented microbe is a unique strain of Bacillus subtilis that helps plants fight drought and fungal disease. UD licensed the technology to global chemical company BASF in 2013. Today the technology is a key component of two BASF product lines in Canada and the United States, and the company is exploring its use in a range of additional product lines and crops.
Meanwhile, the potential uses continue to grow for shear thickening fluid (STF), a smart material co-developed by UD’s Norman Wagner and STF Technologies, the Delaware company he co-founded with UD alum Richard Dombrowski as a spin-off developing UD intellectual property. STF gets stronger under pressure, changing from a liquid to a solid in response to mechanical stress or shear. The innovative material, trademarked as STF-Armor, can be found in commercial products including Reebok’s line of women’s athletic apparel, where STF-infused fabric dynamically adapts to the wearer’s movement, adding more support without compromising on flexibility and comfort. It also has been incorporated into materials from space suits to body armor, due to its puncture- and ballistic-resistance, with other applications under consideration including inflatable space habitats and protective equipment, firefighting and law enforcement gear, industrial and athletic gloves and a variety of industrial applications. STF materials for space applications have been and are currently being tested on the International Space Station for use in human space exploration in collaboration with NASA for the manned missions to the moon and Mars.
Other UD startup companies in the marketplace include Avkin, a leading manufacturer of sensor-enabled, high-fidelity, wearable technology for health care simulation education established by Amy Cowperthwait, co-founder of the Healthcare Theatre for the College of Health Sciences. Avkin’s patented devices for training health care workers and caregivers to perform clinical procedures, such as drawing blood, tracheostomy care, or catheter insertion, provide patient-centered simulation when worn by a live actor. Today, the UD-developed products can be found in select medical and nursing schools and health systems in the U.S. and around the world. The company recently expanded into educational services, offering consultations, virtual patient interaction and a training program for actors in health care simulation.
There are other promising technologies developing, too.
In UD’s Innovation Health and Design Lab, Martha Hall and students are using out-of-the box thinking to create wearable technologies with the potential to help people overcome a variety of health challenges. Students in her lab hail from a variety of disciplines, from fashion to health sciences to engineering. Together, these innovators are pursuing wide-ranging ideas around custom-fitted wearables for athletes, a device that mimics skin-to-skin contact for preemies in the neonatal intensive care unit, transgender underwear, and wearable devices to help people with disabilities.
At Versogen, a startup company that grew out of federally funded UD research, a low-cost environmentally friendly polymer membrane is gaining attention for its ability to enhance clean energy and transportation technologies. A video about the UD startup, then known as W7energy, was featured in the 2020 University Innovation and Entrepreneurship Showcase. The social media campaign was developed by the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities’ (APLU) and the Association of American Universities (AAU) and celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows universities to own and commercialize their federally funded inventions.
A host of other ideas coming out of UD related to the coronavirus pandemic exemplify the problem-solving spirit of UD’s inventor community, from original designs for masks, shields and other personal protective equipment to low-cost ways to decontaminate PPE to COVID-19 research related to analyzing the virus, advancing vaccine manufacturing and predictive modeling to understand student behavior.
Inspiring student inventors
In addition to pursuing their own ideas, UD’s inventor community works hard to inspire students to become the next Blue Hen inventors.
Take, for example, Martha Hall. A majority of Hall’s inventions include student contributions.
“It is so important to me that the student researchers in my lab get acknowledgment and ultimately compensation for their work on these intellectual property-producing projects,” said Hall. “We submit multiple invention disclosures every semester, and students are always co-inventors. It creates a lab culture of equity and mutual respect, where students can get involved firsthand in entrepreneurship.”
And while the University does not have a stake in intellectual property related to solely student-driven inventions, UD units on campus stand ready to help student inventors gain traction for their ideas.
Horn Entrepreneurship offers programming and resources for inventors and innovators of all career stages, from undergraduates to graduate students, postdocs and faculty. Student innovators find a welcoming home at the Venture Development Center, where a like-minded community provides encouragement while Horn’s experienced staff offer training in evidence-based methods, mentorship and access to resources to guide and support startup ventures on the pathway toward launch into the marketplace. Inventors and researchers benefit from Horn’s leadership of UD’s NSF I-Corps Sites Program and Blue Hen Proof of Concept Program, which provide gap funding and training to explore the commercialization potential of novel inventions and discoveries. Horn also engages a broad external network, leveraging the collective wisdom, experiences and connections of successful alumni and community members to provide individualized attention and assistance.
OEIP’s Technology Transfer office welcomes student inventors to submit invention disclosures for evaluation and to learn about how to protect their intellectual property through the patent process. OEIP also can facilitate connections to free services available through the Delaware Small Business Development Center for additional assistance on a path forward.
(featured on UDaily, 02/15/2021)