Universities ramp up research, pump out inventions

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Olivia Walch knew she probably looked kooky when she traveled to Germany last month and donned red-tinted glasses after consulting an app about how to avoid jet lag.

Olivia Walch’s Entrain app works with red-tinted glasses to help travelers avoid jet lag.

Per the app’s suggestion, Walch put the glasses on three hours before she went to the airport, took them off an hour before landing, then put them on later in the evening. Doing so allowed her to adjust to the new time zone because the app helped her design a plan to filter out the blue light rays that affect the body’s internal clock.

Walch created the app, Entrain, while she was a University of Michigan doctoral student studying applied math and has started a business, Arcascope, to help others who could benefit from it.

This year, her app is among a record number of inventions at UM, as universities in Michigan and across the country ramp up efforts to make discoveries that can benefit consumers.

“Taking your research into the marketplace means vastly increasingly the number of people who can learn and benefit from it,” said Walch. “In our case, making an app to communicate lighting schedules about jet lag meant that far more people saw and used them than they would have if we’d only published a paper in a journal.”

UM recently reported 444 inventions in fiscal year 2017, more than last year’s 428, and the fifth straight year of 400-plus inventions from its faculty. At Michigan State University, the number of inventions was just under 200 last year, while Wayne State University has averaged 70 inventions annually over the past three years.

UM — which last year had $1.39 billion in research expenditures, the most of any public university in the nation — also reported a record 172 U.S. patents in 2017, up from 135 the year before. The university also signed 173 license and option agreements with companies to commercialize university researchers’ discoveries, and launched 12 companies, most of which stay in the state

FluMist, the nasal spray flu vaccine for those wanting protection from the flu without an injection, was invented at UM.

“So we’re creating jobs,” said Mark Maynard, marketing director for UM Tech Transfer, which works to move university inventions into the private sector.

“More faculty than ever are participating in the process. It suggests that a lot of faculty are thinking about these things,” he said. “They are not just doing research and inventing stuff, they are actively thinking about the next step and how to get their research outside the university and help people.”

Inventions are a crucial part of making university research relevant to the average citizen, and also grow the economy.

Since 1980, U.S. universities have spun off nearly 5,000 startup companies, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. The economic impact of university and nonprofit patent licensing was $518 billion from 1996 to 2013, creating 3.8 million jobs during that period.

Other inventions to emerge from UM include the nasal spray flu vaccine FluMist, for those wanting protection from the flu without an injection.

At Michigan State University, a cancer treatment, Cisplatin, was invented 50 years ago that has since saved thousands of people’s lives.

Both started in basic science research, which is funded at universities primarily through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy or other federal agencies.

Universities work to license faculty-created inventions to companies to make products and services, said Richard Chylla, executive director of MSU Technologies.

“That’s how the federal tax dollars which are invested in basic research get converted into benefits for the general public, and for economic growth,” said Chylla. “It’s part of the (university’s) mission about how all that basic research ends up improving the standard of living for everyone.”

A good example is the iPhone.

“Everyone knows that Apple developed the iPhone,” Chylla said. “But what people might not know is that there are probably more than 100 inventions in an iPhone that originally were developed at a university, paid for by federal funding.”

The inventions were pre-apps, Chylla said, and include hardware electronics, such as the basic technology behind the iPhone camera.

“The benefit to the public didn’t occur until Apple made a device based on the university research,” Chylla said. “It may have been 15-20 years after some of those inventions were created. But that is how the process happens.”

Inventions by universities are critical to society, said Jeff Mason, CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

“The universities are a wellspring of ideas and inventions and they are producing more disclosures, more inventions,” said Mason. “They are great feeder systems for the state’s entrepreneurial economy.”