Professors’ innovations benefit society, economy

Richard Mathies, dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, is not only a prolific researcher, but a prolific entrepreneur.

In his laboratory in Lewis Hall, Mathies for the past 36 years has explored chemical reactions caused by light, discovering techniques for analyzing them as well as new fluorescence detection methods and dyes.

Richard Mathies, dean of chemistry

Among the innovations developed by Richard Mathies was a technique for analyzing wine for concentrations of natural chemicals (amines) that can cause headaches. (Michael Barnes photo)

But Mathies’ interest in how his work might benefit society also led him to take his discoveries public. Five of the 15 companies Mathies helped start were based on breakthroughs in his lab, and among his 35 patented inventions are miniaturized “labs on a chip” and probes used widely in diagnostic and DNA sequencing laboratories. One of his companies, Affymetrix, became a major player in the human genome project, which has revolutionized our understanding of disease and promises innovative new treatment.

”One of the goals of university research is to do something that is going to impact society,” Mathies said.

“This work is a way of extending your intellectual and scientific abilities beyond the boundaries of the campus, and is a very important part of our role as professors in this institution.”

Mathies is just one of many UC Berkeley researchers whose discoveries – including cancer therapies, Internet search engines, vaccines, increased DVD storage capacity, robotics and computational and design software – and the companies created to manufacture them are spurring the U.S. and California economies and saving lives.

If their companies take off, these enterprising faculty members can benefit financially, but the university benefits as well through licensing fees, royalties and equity in a number of start-ups.

“Berkeley’s continued excellence is demonstrated by our researchers continuing to come up with ideas and inventions that will fuel the California economy well into the future,” said Graham Fleming, UC Berkeley vice chancellor for research. “Their innovations not only benefit society, but bring extra support to the campus that can be reinvested in our students’ education and in further research.”

Over the last two decades, more than 146 companies have been founded with intellectual property (IP) rights licensed from the UC Berkeley campus and the support of scores of big-name venture capital and “angel” investors. Start-ups by UC Berkeley faculty include Chiron Corp. and other pioneering companies in the biotechnology industry that is now a key contributor to the state economy.

The campus abounds with entrepreneurial professors from a broad range of academic fields. They include bioengineer Boris Rubinsky, who developed a novel way to punch nano-sized holes in cells to kill them. Licensed to New York-based Angiodynamics, the technology is marketed as the NanoKnife System and to date has been used for more than 850 patients undergoing liver and pancreas surgery.

Socially responsible IP management and licensing

When faculty members Bob Buchanan and Peggy Lemaux learned that one of their discoveries could help make sorghum – a staple crop throughout Afica – more nutritious, they forewent royalties so the new variety could be adopted widely in areas of rampant malnutrition.

Engineering professor Jay Keasling was adamant that his technique for making an inexpensive version of artemisinin – the most promising antimalarial drug to come along in decades – should be free for use by companies making the drug to distribute in poor countries.

And Eva Harris, professor of infectious diseases, insisted that companies not profit from selling in developing countries her hand-held device for diagnosing disease.

“A driving force in my life has been to take scientific good and make it available to developing countries – to use science to make the world a better place,” said Harris. If her invention ended up diagnosing “a disease of the Third World, or (being used in) an application … in the Third World,” she added, “then we wanted the price point to be essentially at-cost.”

Harris’s insistence drove a policy now common at UC Berkeley, and increasingly so at other universities: royalty free licensing of technologies that can benefit those least able to afford it.

Through its Socially Responsible Licensing Program, UC Berkeley has partnered with industry, start-ups and not-for-profits to develop Keasling’s malaria therapy, now in production by sublicensee Sanofi-Aventis and set for release this year; Buchanan and Lemaux’s protein-enhanced sorghum; Harris’s diagnostics for dengue fever and other infectious diseases; and other beneficial technologies, such as novel anti-viral compounds, water purification filters and pesticide-free crops.

“Traditional IP rights licensing has its place, but humanitarian clauses and socially responsible IP rights contracting are necessary to traverse traditional funding gaps – and to remove some of the risk of projects in order to induce investment and deployment of products that lack an ‘economic driver’ for a commercial company,” said Carol Mimura, assistant vice chancellor for the campus’s Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances. These include not only products for neglected tropical diseases of the developing world but also for rare diseases that afflict small numbers of patients worldwide.

“I think there is a culture here — you see it in the undergraduates and in the graduate students — a culture of trying to do something more than just make a lot of money or get a degree,” said Keasling. “It’s about trying to do something in an area where it will help people.” (more)

A basic discovery in the lab of chemical engineer Jay Keasling led to a collaboration with Keasling’s start-up, Amyris Biotechnologies, and the Institute for One World Health (iOWH) to develop for use in developing countries an inexpensive drug to battle malaria, which kills nearly 1 million people a year, most of them children. That drug, artemisinin, is now in production by sublicensee Sanofi-Aventis as a malaria drug combination for release in 2012.

The thrill of discovery and its promise

Most of these applications grew out of basic discoveries that might have languished in research journals had UC Berkeley researchers not pursued a larger goal: to put the technology to use for society.

“The key function of faculty members is to educate and generate new knowledge, but at some point in your research, you begin to think about the societal impact,” said chemistry professor Peidong Yang, whose lab has spun off two start-ups: Nanosys Inc., and Alphabet Energy, Inc. “Our involvement with companies and venture capitalists is very exciting. Whenever you see your technology turn into a really useful device, it feels good. It’s not just a paper.”

Two-year-old Alphabet Energy is developing an energy-saving technology Yang invented to scavenge waste heat from engines and motors and put it back into the power grid. Nanosys is developing better batteries using nanowires that Yang invented.

According to chemistry professor Carolyn Bertozzi, “that’s the real dream, to one day look at a product – a drug that could save lives – that your technology contributed to.” Bertozzi helped launch a start-up, Redwood Bioscience Inc., in 2009, to nurse her technology for chemically altering proteins to create therapeutic drugs.

“We are really new,” said Bertozzi of her company, “but we feel this technology is a great platform for creating new biopharmaceuticals that are part biologic, part synthetic.”

In addition to the desire to make an impact on society, Mathies added that another major incentive for starting new companies, patenting and licensing new technology, or consulting for companies is the intellectual fun involved.

“The companies present interesting scientific puzzles and problems – why didn’t this work? – and you have to work with them to try to figure this out,” Mathies said.

A balancing act

While the campus buzzes today with entrepreneurial activity, Mathies said that when he first arrived at UC Berkeley in 1976, few people in the chemistry department were involved with outside companies. And the campus, in general, had an ambivalent attitude toward faculty members doing consulting work and launching start-ups for fear they would be distracted from their campus duties: research and teaching.

Part of that tension, as Mathies sees it, arises from the expectation that faculty will continue their full-time teaching and research load while nurturing a start-up. University policy limits faculty to one day of consulting per week, but that is not enough time to build a start-up into a viable company. Mathies has occasionally taken a semester off to get a start-up off the ground, but many companies are founded by former graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are eager to shepherd to the marketplace work they conducted for their theses.

Despite the success of their companies – Keasling’s Amyris was capitalized at $478 million at the end of last year, for example – and the hours required to run them, these faculty members make the choice to juggle their start-up and UC Berkeley responsibilities.

“I’m a better teacher as a result of my experience going off and creating a company,” said Kris Pister, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who founded Dust Inc. (now Dust Networks Inc.). Today, his tiny, low-power “smart dust” wireless networking technology is the standard in industrial process automation as part of sensors that monitor pipes and tanks in complex plants such as oil refineries and paper mills and quickly relay the information to a central control room.

“Now, when I interact with students,” he said, “I impress upon them the importance of thinking of research in the context of how the technology will fit into the real world.”

Financial rewards

Faculty innovations brought nearly $7 million to the campus during 2010, and the total exceeded $93 million in 2011. This comes from licenses to campus inventions and copyrightable software – so-called intellectual property, or IP – and is shared by the inventors and the campus. A portion of these funds support general campus activities and a portion typically goes to the inventors’ departments to support new research by young faculty and graduate students.

Mathies’ inventions related to DNA sequencing, for example, which were co-invented by molecular and cell biology professor Alex Glazer, have earned the campus over $30 million in income thanks to a license between UC Berkeley and the companies Molecular Dynamics, Amersham and GE.

Carolyn Bertozzi

Carolyn Bertozzi co-founded Redwood Bioscience Inc. in 2009 with her former graduate student, David Rabuka, to develop a technology for modifying proteins to make part-biologic, part-synthetic drugs. (Roy Kaltschmidt photo, LBNL)

A promising cancer treatment by James Allison, a former UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology who now chairs the immunology program at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York last year earned the Berkeley campus $87.5 million in advance payments from Bristol-Myers Squibb in lieu of future royalties. Another $40 million may follow if the treatment, approved in April by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and in July in Europe for advanced melanoma, works as well as clinical trials on other cancers suggest.

The revenue from Allison’s patent allowed the campus to invest in research support for students and faculty and for better facilities, such as new student laboratory space in the Valley Life Sciences Building to expand critical gateway courses for biology and pre-med majors. It also funded core facilities in the Cancer Research Laboratory and shared equipment for the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, as well as financial assistance to recruit and retain faculty for the Health Sciences Initiative and start-up funds for new faculty recruits and new programs in other biology departments.

Such income from licensing the campus’s IP is increasingly welcome at a time when the state is scaling back funding to higher education.

But the UC mission of conducting research that benefits the public and advances the frontiers of knowledge is what motivates these faculty members.

“I wouldn’t dream of leaving UC Berkeley to focus solely on my start-ups,” said Mathies. “But I feel that my involvement with start-ups establishes an atmosphere in my lab where the students see how developing ideas at a university can lead to getting things to happen outside the university. They see that as a value to society.”

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