Invention Dimension II: The Seeds of Invention
Salt Lake City, UT –
When it comes to creating new start ups from inventions, the University of Utah is tops. It's tied with MIT for first in the nation. Why has Utah become a hotbed for scientific inventions? Where do the seeds of an entrepreneurial idea come from? And why invent in the first place? We'll turn first to one of the University of Utah's most prolific inventors, Ted Stanley. Here's the story of one of his first inventions:
Stanley was having coffee and looking at the sugar cubes nearby. What about putting drugs in the sugar cubes? Now before you get the wrong idea, Stanley was taking a break from his experiments on how to safely immobilize monkeys. The Utah research professor and doctor specializes in anesthesiology and pain. So, what about putting the drugs in the sugar cubes?
"Because monkeys like sugar cubes," said Stanley.
So he did. Stanley said the monkeys loved it. It was safe and easy.
"There was no stress, they didn't yell, you know," he laughed.
On the plane ride back home to Utah, Stanley starts thinking. What about for his patients who are children?
"So, I said, what if we had a lollipop that had one of these drugs in it and you give the lollipop to the child and then boom, they would be relaxed, they'd go to sleep, then you could take them from their parents, it would be so stress-less and so nice," said Stanley.
So he and his colleagues developed the fentanyl lollipop, first for children, then adults with very severe cancer pain. It allowed patents to, within a few minutes, take the pain away themselves. The University of Utah's business school approached Stanley and told him he should start a company.
"And, I didn't know ditsquat about any of that, I'm a doctor you know," said Stanley.
But the University of Utah, even in 1984, had a structure in place to steer him to business people, academic partners and patent lawyers. Actiq is now a multi-billion dollar product. And what that meant for the university? Millions and millions and millions of dollars, according to Brian Cummings, the executive director of Technology Commercialization at the University of Utah. Blockbuster inventions with staggering returns are rare. But inventions and spin-out companies do generate jobs for the state, profits for the university, and for the inventor.
"There's kind of an interesting phenomenon we call the Porsche principle," Cummings said. "How can somebody in humanities or electrical engineering or chemistry who makes a modest salary as a faculty professor or researcher, drive around in a great car? It's because they invented something. So the Porsche principle leads to others saying, wow, how did you get that? Or, this big house? It's because they get involved in the commercialization process."
Cummings and others are quick to point out that the average payout for the U's faculty inventors is only about $5,000 dollars. Conflict of interest rules are rigorous. And a recent national study of professors in medical and engineering schools, who patented a lot, showed that their motivation was to change society. Another study showed that professors who started spin-offs are cited by other researchers at a much higher rate, and their own publication rate was much higher.
"It's counter intuitive," said Ashley Stevens, president of the University Association of Technology Managers. "But it really does turn out that the professors who take the time and effort to translate the results of their research into the marketplace so they public can benefit from them are by many measures, better scientists than those who don't."
Ted Stanley, whose been described as a "serial entrepreneur," says for scientists, seeing their idea result in a useful product is like watching your baby grow up. Stanley has bore many ideas and carefully tended them until they're ready to leave home and become companies.
"I have lots of other children that are teenagers, pre-teenagers and we have some companies that are still in diapers, you know," laughed Stanley.
Another University of Utah scientist who's given birth to a number of companies is medicinal chemist Glenn Prestwich. He came here from Stonybrook in New York and was struck by spirit of collaboration at the U, which he believes leads to more inventions. There aren't the silos common at many other schools, where Prestwich says, administrators constantly talk about the need to build bridges to encourage collaboration.
"If everybody comes down to the main floor then there's no need to build a bridge," he said.
Interactions happen something like this: Prestwich is sitting in a room one day with medicinal chemists, a couple of biologists, and University of Utah pulmonologist Tom Kennedy. Kennedy was the guy who brainstormed a technology to turn the anti-coagulant heparin into something that could help with inflammation. But heparin comes from pig guts and it's difficult and expensive to get.
"He [Kennedy] says - he's from Louisiana - Glenn, if you can turn your hyaluronic acid into something that does what my heparin derivative does, we're going to have a good company," he said.
So two weeks later, Prestwich walks over the compounds. He gets a call from Kennedy. "And [Kennedy] says,'" said Prestwich, "Glenn, those things are 200 times more active than my stuff (laugh) we got to start a company.'"
And so they did. The first conversation was in November. The company started in January. That fast. And that company has led to many other discoveries. And for Prestwich, its all come from collaborations, something that's a lot easier when there aren't walls within and around in the Ivory Tower.
"We shouldn't give up the intellectual goals, "he said. "But we should add to our portfolio of things to accomplish, the ability to make peoples' lives better."
Serial inventor Ted Stanley has the same desire. At 70, he's still teaching, helping other researchers, and inventing himself. One of his newest companies is developing a novel way of creating anesthesia. Stanley shows off a large refrigerator-like box that looks like it's a 1950s science experiment. There are two large black hoses coming out of it.
"It's rather large at this point," Stanley said. "You start large, once you've got it working, and then you miniaturize it."
Here's how it will work. A patient will put on what looks like a blood-pressure cuff. Wave forms generated from the box will block nerve sensations from a patient's hand to the spinal cord.
"And it will hopefully create anesthesia without hopefully frying my arm," Stanley laughed.
So if all goes well for this non-stop inventor, in future, if you arrive at the emergency room with a broken leg or arm, you put a cuff on, instantaneous anesthesia, without chemicals.