Governor’s Innovation Series Aims to Bring Ivory Tower Down to Earth

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UC Riverside event hopes public awareness will build partnerships and funding to fuel discoveries, create products and spur the local economy

By Kris Lovekin on April 28, 2014

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Lewis Stewart waiting for guests at Innovation series event UC Riverside   Jeanette Marantos

Lewis Stewart waiting for guests at Innovation series event UC Riverside

Jeanette Marantos

By Jeanette Marantos

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — By day, entomology Professor Anandasankar Ray teaches UC Riverside students about bugs. He ‘s also a full-time researcher into insects’ sense of smell, overseer of the Ray Laboratory of insect olfaction, product developer, grant writer ….and by night, he lies awake wondering if his new discoveries to thwart deadly mosquito-borne diseases will ever reach the people they’re designed to save.

“People think of professors as just being teachers, or wearing lab coats in a lab, but that’s just not true. There’s so much more we have to do,” Ray said Tuesday, after he and others discussed the new technologies and partnerships coming from UC Riverside during the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development Innovation Series at UCR.

Expanding public awareness is exactly the point of the Innovation Series, said organizer Louis Stewart, Deputy Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship in the governor’s Office of Business & Economic Development.

“The UCs are known for innovation, but nobody actually knows what they’re innovating,” Stewart said Tuesday. “We want to bring awareness and we want to help people see higher ed as a resource: How do we partner better?”

Tuesday’s Innovation event, hosted by UCR’s Office for Research and Economic Development, was the second in what Stewart expects to be a series of similar events at other UC campuses, to help people understand the vital role universities can play in California’s economic recovery.

Michael Pazzani, UCR's Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, talks at the innovation event.  Jeanette Marantos

Michael Pazzani, UCR’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, talks at the innovation event.
Jeanette Marantos

Invited guests from government and industry listened to presentations about what researchers are doing at UCR and how businesses and entrepreneurs are working with the university to create new products.

It wasn’t just the university touting its wares. Attendees Dan Bechtel and Gene Sherman are local entrepreneurs who see partnerships with UCR as a way to build their businesses. Bechtel is banking on UCR engineers to fine tune his company’s new design for a wind turbine for home or business use. And Sherman hopes he can encourage UCR engineering and science students to use his Vocademy school to learn how to use the tools required to make their designs. 

“I’d like to see more of these,” Bechtel said. “It can help you meet the right people when you see what’s going on at the university.”

Michael Pazzani, UCR’s Vice Chancellor of Research and Economic Development, has set a goal of tripling the amount of federal funding to UCR over the next 10 years. With that funding comes new discoveries and UCR is enhancing its technology commercialization efforts to turns these discoveries into products.

Pazzani emphasized the potential, and then explored the vulnerabilities by asking the seven speakers—researcher/professors and the business people who help bring those discoveries to the marketplace—what keeps them awake at night. Those speakers included:

  • Ray, whose research into the way mosquitos smell their prey (i.e. by zeroing in on the carbon dioxide we exhale) has led to promising new products which are as effective as DEET in keeping mosquitos away, but are easier to apply, have a pleasant grape fragrance and don’t have nasty side effects, such as a tendency to melt plastic.  Most importantly for people in the poorer regions of the world, Ray’s mosquito repellents are far less expensive than DEET. The trick now is getting the product to them.

 

  • Steve Abbott, chief discovery officer of Innovation Economy Corporation, which “looks out for innovations everywhere and then marries them with experienced entrepreneurs with the know-how to build strong, smart and purpose-driven companies,” such as the ieCrowd company Olfactor Laboratories Inc., which transformed Ray’s discoveries into the Kite Patch, a small sticker that can be worn on clothing, costs a fraction of what DEET costs, and provides effective mosquito protection for 48 hours. The first Kite Mosquito Patches are being tested in Uganda, where the majority of the world’s 660,000 malaria deaths in 2010 occurred.

 

  • Computer Science and Engineering Professor Frank Vahid, founder of Zynate Inc., maker of zyBooks, digital textbook for college students that use animation and games to help students learn core subjects in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Research shows that more than half of college students who start in STEM majors never finish, in part because their learning styles don’t match the way the subjects are taught, Vahid said. “Students learn by doing,” he said, “so we wanted to create a text book with less text and more action.” The response from professors and students has been strongly positive in the 60 universities where the textbook is being tested, but without funding, Vahid says, it will be hard for his product to compete against large publishers whose splashy textbooks “look good on the outside, but are students really learning?”

 

  • Plant Cell Biology Professor Sean Cutler, whose research on how plants resist drought was listed by Science magazine as one of 2009’s top 10 breakthroughs, is discovering new chemicals that can help plants grow even in drought conditions. The work has resulted in five patents, and a partnership with Syngenta, a Swiss agribusiness that sells seeds and agrochemicals, and supports biotechnology and genomic research to create better products for farmers. What keeps him awake at night? “Keeping the money coming into the lab so our innovations can continue.”

 

  • Michael Nuccio, principal research scientist for Syngenta, who said his company employs 26,000 people in 90 countries, with $14.7 billion in revenues and a research budget of $1.3 billion a year. In a time when drought is an increasing problem across the globe, “crop protection is one of our most important concerns,” he said, “and we can’t do all the research ourselves.” The company has 500 active partners in research and development, including UCR.

 

  • Terry Bills, overseer of “all things transportation” for Esri, the predominant GIS mapping software company in the world, said his company has a strong commitment to making the Inland Empire a technology hub. Esri has about 5,000 employees in 130 countries, but is headquartered in Redlands, Bills said, the hometown of the company’s founder, Jack Dangermond. “We spend $300 million a year on research and development.  We’ve hired many of UCR graduates over the years, who have made a contribution to our success.”

 

  • Peter Gardner, founder and CEO of Startgrid, Inc., who said the old rule that Silicon Valley tech businesses would rarely leave the valley to find partners is rapidly changing. “I began to see how provincial that was, and how dramatically underserved we are by that mindset. It’s time to bring the network—the Valley—to the entrepreneurs.” His new business is designed to connect budding entrepreneurs with experienced business people, who can offer advice about the many hurdles that can cripple an emerging company, especially one run by people whose forte is research and not business.
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