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Faculty researchers share their experiences turning discoveries into marketable products


  • Catherine Hockmuth

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  • Catherine Hockmuth

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(L-R) UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering professors David Kriegman, computer science and engineering; Rene Cruz, electrical and computer engineering; Sujit Dey, electrical and computer engineering; and Geert Schmid-Schönbein, bioengineering; and Stephen Flaim, deputy director of the von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement. Photo Credit: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Four engineering faculty members with technology transfer success stories discussed the challenges of the commercialization process during a March 14 dinner celebrating the 10th anniversary of the von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement. The von Liebig Center offers seed funding and advisory services and is part of the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego.

“If we do research and just put it on the shelf to collect dust, we’re not doing our job,” said Frieder Seible, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering. “We need to transfer our discoveries from the research lab to society.” During the dinner, which was hosted by the UC San Diego Chancellor’s Associates, Seible said the von Liebig Center had transformed the culture of the engineering school, giving students and faculty an entrepreneurial mindset.  The Chancellor’s Associates are generous group of alumni, parents and friends who give $2,500 or more each year to be used at the Chancellor's discretion to fund the university's greatest needs.

UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox said the Chancellor’s Associates are making a great investment, adding that university faculty, staff and alumni have started 646 companies with estimated annual sales of $15 billion dollars.

The von Liebig Center was created 10 years ago to help Jacobs School of Engineering faculty turn their research into marketable products, launch companies and educate students about how entrepreneurial companies of all sizes innovate and compete globally. It has evolved into a regional hub for industry partners, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and universities across Southern California to accelerate the transition of university discoveries into viable products or services.

Stephen Flaim, who is one of several technology and business advisors at the center, talked about the so-called Valley of Death, a gap between the laboratory and the marketplace that can fell even the most promising technology. Lacking funding and a connection with private sector investors and collaborators, researchers can easily get stuck. “There is a gap before the gap,” said Flaim. “That gap is the step from the university out to the private sector. What we did here at the von Liebig Center was figure out a mechanism and an infrastructure that allowed us to make the technologies inside a university recognizable at an earlier stage.”

March 14 Chancellor's Associates event recognizing the 10th anniversary of the von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement. Photo Credit: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Bioengineering Professor Geert Schmid-Schönbein said agencies that fund basic research don’t help scientists reach the next stage and carry discoveries forward towards a product. Likening the process to growing palm trees, Schmid-Schönbein said, “A palm tree starts out small. An invention is the same thing. An invention is a crazy idea one day and then it starts to grow, and that growth process needs to be supported.”

He should know. After decades of research into the basic mechanisms of inflammation, Schmid-Schönbein discovered that under conditions of shock, the epithelial cell barrier that lines the small intestine becomes permeable, causing potent digestive enzymes to be carried into the blood stream and lymphatic system where they digest and destroy healthy tissue and cause multi-organ failure. He named this process Autodigestion. Through the von Liebig Center, Schmid-Schönbein connected with entrepreneur and investor John Rodenrys. Together, they launched InflammaGen Therapeutics, which is now conducting a Phase 2 clinical trial of its life-saving treatment which involves blocking the digestive enzymes in the intestine with an already FDA-approved enzyme inhibitor.

With a grant from the von Liebig Center, Electrical Engineering Professor Sujit Dey created a prototype from the techniques he had developed to dynamically shape data in applications as a function of mobile network and device conditions. This became the core technology to launch Ortiva Wireless, which delivers solutions for proactive management of mobile video and rich media content delivery. Dey said the von Liebig Center helped him get the funding he needed to hire students, develop an advanced prototype that could be presented to potential customers and investors, and to offer valuable advice in the business development and technology transfer process.

Rene Cruz, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Cahit Akin, a former researcher in the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), founded Mushroom Networks to provide faster and more reliable internet connections for mission critical applications. Cruz said the full impact of learning how to build a company and being able to share that with students is something that can only be “measured on a 100-year timescale.”

David Kriegman, professor of computer science, and alumnus Satya Mallick, (UC San Diego Ph.D. 2006) applied their computer vision and machine learning expertise to realistic photo enhancement. With the help of the von Liebig Center, they found a market for this innovation in the beauty industry. Mallick is now the vice president of engineering at TAAZ and its wildly popular website, where millions of women virtually try on makeup, hairstyles and sunglasses from the comfort of their home.  TAAZ technology is powering virtual try-on for web sites, iPads and in stores for InStyle magazine, Estee Lauder, People magazine, Clinique, iVillage, Laura Mercier, Revlon and others.  Ask what the team would have done without the von Liebig Center, Kriegman said, “We wrote a really great paper. It was published and presented at the European Conference on Computer Vision. Then we would have moved on to the next problem.”

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