University eyes patent potential in professors’ research

Correction appended

Director of the GW Institute for Nanotechnology Michael Keidar spent the last three years developing a cancer cell-killing medical device that he said could revolutionize the disease’s treatment worldwide.

The associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering earned a license for his product May 16, becoming the University’s 11th patent in the last two years – three more than the previous two years.

“This is exactly what you talk about, putting basic lab research into the commercial world,” Keidar said. “To put this in the market, I sense some urgency.”

Media Credit: Francis Rivera | Photo Editor
Keidar, left, and Ph.D. student Tai Sen Zhuang, look at a micro satellite in a University lab.

The licensing deal, which will give the company patent rights and grant the University and Keidar a stake in potential profits, is a reflection of the University’s intensifying efforts to blend research with business.

Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said he knows that for the University to earn a name as a major research institution, it must pick up its commercialization efforts, which he believes have picked up steam since GW founded its Office of Technology Transfer two years ago. To measure up to research powerhouses like Stanford and Columbia universities, which sponsor a flood of patents each year that pull in millions of dollars, GW is looking toward scientists with big ideas, like Keidar, to incrementally build up its research prowess.

“If we had one faculty member who was able to start a successful company, that would get everyone’s attention like that,” Chalupa said, snapping his fingers.

The University has been ramping up its research focus, which has been a signature of University President Steven Knapp’s tenure since he came to GW in 2007.

Knapp said the technology transfer office was essential “to enable your faculty and students to get their ideas out there where they can really make a difference,” even though those the products licensed by the office rarely make money.

Jim Chung, director of the Office of Entrepreneurship, said his four-person staff has redoubled its outreach this year to faculty involved in research, meeting with researchers and departments to spread the word about how to commercialize the fieldwork.

He added that the office has been building relationships with major D.C. companies and angel investors to increase exposure to the office’s work. The office held its first ever open house last month to promote innovation, holding a competition to recognize the researcher with the best potential for licensing commercialization.

He pointed to other recent successes for GW researchers whom his office helped, including a cell phone service to help cigarette smokers quit that was developed by public health researcher Lorien Abroms and licensed by the technology company Voxiva in 2010. But he said most faculty members are not in a mindset of commercializing their research.

“A lot of them to be honest underestimate what the commercial impact of what research they might be doing,” Chung said.

Such deals rarely rake in large earnings for universities, Chalupa said. The University has only earned about $100,000 from licensing products since his office was created in 2009, while Chalupa’s former school, University of California-Davis, made about $10 million.

“It’s one of those things if you say, ‘Boy, it’s going to big source of income,’ that’s a mistake. But to be a research university you have to have that,” Chalupa said. “We started this thing pretty much from ground zero, because we had nobody here before.”

The Research Advisory Board, a 13-member panel of outside experts and administrators, convened for the first time May 15. Future discussions may involve how to bolster GW’s commercial efforts, Chalupa said, adding that he is not sure whether the panel board will make the subject its main focus.

Chalupa said the results are slow but promising as the University looks to build on the momentum that lifted GW into the National Science Foundation’s top 100 research institutions for the first time last month.

The Science and Engineering Hall, which will open in 2015, and hiring a burst of upstart researchers would add to commercial research potential, School of Engineering and Applied Science Dean David Dolling said.

The $275-million building will boast 480,000 square feet, including a lab for nano-scale research, and house almost all of the 40 researchers hired between 2010 and opening day.

He believes new laboratories could magnify the potential for big discoveries.

“It’s sort of like a snowball going down a hill. My theory is it will only take one or two successes to really get the ball rolling,” Dolling said, adding that the University needs to give researchers “the freedom, facilities, the structure, the community to think those kind of thoughts.”

Keidar said more faculty are seeing commercial possibilities for research, and as he tries to draft his own success story, it would take many more to put GW on the map.

“I don’t see this as a game change, and that overnight our professors will be developing commercial products,” Keidar said. “It has to come natural, because the main goal is basic research to understand science and technology.”

This article was updated May 21, 2012 to reflect the following:
The photo caption incorrectly stated that Michael Keidar was on the right. He is on the left.

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