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Moving inventions to the marketplace

MIT/Harvard symposium seeks commercial opportunities for emerging technologies.
One of the speakers at TechConnect World, Mary (Missy) Cummings — associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and and engineering systems — holds a UAV she uses in her projects.
One of the speakers at TechConnect World, Mary (Missy) Cummings — associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and and engineering systems — holds a UAV she uses in her projects.
Photo: Patrick Gillooly

This week, researchers from MIT and Harvard University crossed the Charles River to speak at a symposium intended to bridge scientific innovation from both campuses with corporate interests from around the world. The two-day event, sponsored by the MIT Technology Licensing Office (TLO) and Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), took place Tuesday and Wednesday at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston as part of TechConnect World, an annual “matchmaking” conference that pairs innovators in sustainability, nanotechnology and the life sciences with potential investors.

“This is kind of an experiment for both Harvard and MIT,” said Christopher Noble, MIT’s technology licensing officer for energy technology. “We decided we wanted to raise our profile in the techno community, and create more dialogue … and explore a variety of ways we can work, especially with large companies.”

Noble is one of a number of licensing officers within the TLO who have helped move MIT technologies into the marketplace. Licensing officers generally identify academic research that might have startup potential, along with researchers interested in creating a company. They then work to introduce inventors and their technologies to venture capitalists, helping negotiate licensing agreements that formally hand over MIT technology to newly founded companies. Last year, the TLO helped launch 17 companies spun off from MIT research.

“MIT has a real strength in startup companies,” Noble said. “We have a very good ecosystem and infrastructure for spinning out companies, but now we’re reaching out to the Fortune 500 companies to broaden our relationships with them.”

In TechConnect World, organizers found an ideal venue to showcase the Institute’s emerging technologies. Each year, the conference assembles more than 5,000 business leaders, entrepreneurs, industry analysts and researchers for a week of presentations meant to match technology with markets.

The two-day Harvard and MIT Technology Showcase featured a cross section of research, from presentations to poster sessions. Robert Benson, director of business development in Harvard’s OTD, described the work presented as just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the technology that could potentially be licensed and spun out of each university.

Among the speakers were leading investigators from MIT:

  • Sebastian Seung, professor of computational neuroscience, introduced his work in neuroimaging by posing a question to the audience: How many miles of “wires,” or neurons, are in the human brain? As a point of reference, Seung invoked the Cray 1 supercomputer from the 1970s, which housed a “nightmare” of wires that, if laid out, would measure 70 miles from end to end. In comparison, the human brain contains “millions” of miles of neurons, he said. Seung outlined his work to develop algorithms that map neuronal synapses and connections, with the goal of identifying brain patterns indicative of disease.
  • Kripa Varanasi, the Brit (1961) and Alex (1949) d’Arbeloff Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, presented research in anti-wetting materials — some of it biomimetic, with the acknowledgment that the leaves of the lotus flower are “a great model for a lot of these systems,” he said. Varanasi is developing surface textures that repel water at the nanoscale, and says many business sectors may benefit from moisture-control technology, including the oil and gas industries, gas-turbine power generation, transportation and electronics cooling.
  • Mary (Missy) Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, is flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with an iPhone. Her interface requires far less training than current military UAVs, which involve extensive training sessions and come with bulky controllers and communication gear. In a recent test, Seattle-based executives from sponsor Boeing successfully piloted a vehicle in Cambridge — some 3,000 miles away — by operating the iPhone interface over a cellular network. “Anybody can have these technologies and fly these [vehicles],” Cummings said of the technology’s user-friendliness.

Two MIT presenters had already successfully commercialized their technologies:

  • Gene Fitzgerald, the Merton C. Flemings (1951) SMA Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, detailed work to increase the speed of computer chips using germanium and gallium arsenide, both of which are faster conductors than silicon. He and his colleagues are layering all three conductors to make faster computer chips that “can push Moore’s law further and further,” he said. Fitzgerald has already started several companies based on his research, including AmberWave Systems and 4Power.
  • Michael Cima, professor of materials science, described his team’s work in improving existing medical procedures. The group engineered a delivery system for highly viscous drugs, which normally require multiple doctors’ visits and administered injections. Cima’s design — a small, battery-powered pouch — delivers drugs through a tiny needle inserted under the patient’s skin. The device enables patients to administer drugs themselves; Cima has founded a company, SpringLeaf Therapeutics, to further commercialize the delivery system. “We had to convince quite courageous people to invest in this,” Cima said. The company recently raised $15 million in venture capital.

Noble, of MIT’s TLO, said he hoped the symposium, an exploratory venture for both MIT and Harvard, would encourage connections between researchers and industry leaders.

“We’re exploring a variety of different ways of commercializing our technology,” Noble said. “This is a non-traditional way for us, but one that we’re challenging ourselves with.”

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