From Lab Bench to Marketplace

Efforts are increasing to help University researchers market their important discoveries.

Robert Engel
Queens College professor of chemistry and biochemistry Robert Engel is nearing licensing agreements with two companies for a lipids-based antibacterial, anitfungal coating that can bind to fabric and other materials and has many potential applications.

Soldiers' uniforms that do double duty as antibacterial bandages. Light-controlling materials that make it possible to distinguish missiles from background noise. A device that taps sunlight to generate the hydrogen or methanol that may someday power Americans' cars.

In University labs, researchers are developing the next generation of solar cells, storage batteries and bacteria-busting technologies. And CUNY is ramping up efforts to commercialize their discoveries, with the added goal of fueling economic development in New York City and state. Wherever possible, it is helping researchers connect with industry partners, negotiating licensing agreements with companies to market commercially viable innovations and encouraging investment in "spin-off" companies.

"For the first time in recent years, we are trying to stimulate the economy of New York by taking the faculty ideas and trying to commercialize them," said Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small. "We're really starting to make advances now in getting licenses."

"Our scientists are developing technologies that have the potential to make tremendous contributions to society, from sustainable energy to medical and safety innovations," said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. "Bringing them to the marketplace is essential, benefiting not only their creators, their colleges and CUNY, but local economies and the public at large."

Working on the cutting edge of one of today's hottest research fields, metamaterials, David Crouse, a City College electrical engineering professor, develops light-controlling materials that can make pollution-detecting sensors, improve solar panels, make it possible to distinguish missiles from background noise and detect hidden explosive devices. With physics professor Ronald Koder, he is engineering the device that can generate hydrogen or methanol from sunlight.

But Crouse, director of the CUNY Center for Advanced Technology in Photonics Applications, is also an entrepreneur, working, with University support, to move his discoveries from lab bench to the marketplace through his Manhattan-based spin-off company, Phoebus Optoelectronics LLC.

At Queens College, Robert Engel, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and the college's interim dean for mathematics and science, said he is nearing licensing agreements with two companies - a Manhattan manufacturer of sporting uniforms and a Newburgh, N.Y., fabric-finishing company - for a lipids-based antibacterial, antifungal coating that can bind to cotton, wood, cork and other surfaces and has many potential applications. Engel said a third license, to a company in Europe, is in the works.

Physicians' lab coats and soldiers' uniforms made from fabric treated with the bacteria-destroying coating would repel infection in the hospital or battlefield. "The military would be interested," Engel said. "If someone is shot in the leg in the battlefield, it's the infection that kills the soldier. You have a built-in antibacterial bandage. You can wrap the leg with the uniform."

The intensified focus on commercialization of faculty ideas - known as technology transfer - is a natural outgrowth of the University's Decade of Science initiative, which has upgraded science facilities, attracted world-class researchers and devoted other resources toward raising CUNY's science and research profile.

The new efforts emulate the model set by the University of California, which is a magnet for research dollars and helps drive California's economy - local and statewide - by facilitating faculty entrepreneurship and promoting partnerships with industry, University spin-off companies and other arrangements.

In New York, the idea of marrying higher education and industry to stimulate the state's economy has caught on. In May, Gov. David Paterson signed an executive order creating the Task Force on Diversifying the New York State Economy through Industry-Higher Education Partnerships, a task force that includes Sanjoy Banerjee, distinguished professor of chemical engineering at City College and director of the CUNY Energy Institute, and is headed by the president of Cornell University. The task force, which was scheduled to meet at City College in October, is studying best practices and will make recommendations on how to foster business incubation, growth and emerging technology.

The strategy also dovetails with the goals of the University's new Business and Industry Relations Office, established last month with John B. Clark as acting director. It is to be the University's primary liaison with business and industry; it will work within CUNY on economic issues from research to workforce development, market the University and facilitate partnerships with business, industry, government entities and nonprofits.

The process of bringing innovations to the marketplace can be lengthy and complex, from obtaining funds for research, to applying for patents, to licensing the ideas to existing companies or to CUNY spin-offs, and then proceeding to prototypes, production and hopefully profits. Under the licensing agreements, which are negotiated by CUNY's Technology Commercialization Office (TCO), the University splits the royalties from its researchers' work with the faculty member and his or her college.

The TCO, in consultation with the faculty committee handling intellectual property, evaluates researchers' ideas for their commercial viability and handles the legal aspects of patenting and licensing them. "The idea is, does it move along that continuum to get funding?" Vice Chancellor Small said. "You need a company to be interested, or you start your own company because the idea is so good. We are encouraging our faculty to work closely with start-up companies and spinoffs, with economic development and getting the idea to the marketplace, the main goals."

The University has been interfacing with industry for years. The CUNY Center for Advanced Technology in Photonics Applications, or CUNYCAT, encourages and supports technology transfer projects. With significant funding from NYSTAR - the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research - the CAT develops photonics technology to promote economic development for the medical, biological, industrial and military sectors. This generates millions in economic impact in the state - creating jobs; leveraging millions in industry, company, CUNY and federal funds; and entering into contracts and licensing agreements with many New York companies. The CAT also works with the Sustainable Business Incubator, based at Bronx Community College, which helps to launch, and supports, sustainability-related companies.

Crouse, who directs CUNYCAT, noted that the University is "renovating core facilities and offices" and "resources are being allocated."

Commercialization of faculty innovations, Crouse said, "can generate revenue and show the University is serving as an economic engine for the community. People want to see the University create more Silicon Valleys."

Crouse has moved to patent his breakthrough photonics work, and has tapped approximately $3 million in government grants from agencies including NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Air Force and the Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency. Phoebus, his company, has seven patents or pending applications and is finalizing licensing agreements with CUNY for his technologies.

The opportunity to commercialize his discoveries with the University's support and investment makes for a "very fulfilling" experience, Crouse said.

"It's an exciting endeavor… You have your teaching, your academic research lab; it complements rather than takes away. You bring to the classroom your lab experience in taking the technology and really applying it to the needs of society. Academic research rarely gets to the marketplace, but this will."

Robert Engel acknowledged "it has been a long, slow, tedious process," to get his eight-year-old discovery to the point of commercialization, as well as the final stages of approval by the Environmental Protection Agency. "They're concerned anything you throw away will get into the ground," he explained.

He noted that the technology-transfer process, including submitting the patent applications and getting innovations through regulatory agencies, can be expensive.

"If someone provided the funds to do development of a particular application, that's what we would do," he said. "We're looking for people who want to invest."