Center for Enviornmental Systems,
Academics + Entrepreneurs = Greener America
A lot of the nation’s most beneficial green solutions are not reaching the marketplace. An amazing percentage of America’s best and brightest research minds labor within her universities. Yet, unfortunately, many of their discoveries remain locked within the walls of academia, never commercially developed, never benefiting the public.
Stevens Institute is saying this is wrong, and the federal government ardently agrees. On February 2, 2008, the National Science Foundation funded the Environmental Entrepreneurship Lab of Stevens’ Center for Environmental Systems. In essence, this E2- Lab program smashes the many barriers between academia and business, in hopes of swiftly commercializing products serving our environmental needs.
“One of the many obstacles, is a clash of cultures,” says Christos Christodoulatos, director of Stevens Institute’s Center for Environmental Systems. “Those in academia tend to see people on the ‘outside,’ in the business world, as tainted by a mad lust for profit. Meanwhile, the business community views academics as airy, impractical scholars who would rather putter than produce.”
Beyond this mutual suspicion, often lies a larger obstacle of law. Most all state universities, and many private ones outright forbid any professor or researcher from earning any remuneration for any invention he makes while on their payroll. This even extends to researchers who operate via outside grants - grants which are financially benefiting their university. While it seems odd, the theory is that since these professors have enjoyed the use of university facilities and often graduate school assistants, any discovery belongs wholly to the university. There is also the fear that once tinged with financial success, professors will neglect their students in pursuit of profits.
As a result, the academic inventor may not sell his discovery. Usually, he may not even introduce it to a commercial firm for development.
* IP Slowdown. As Christodoulatos says, “This process absolutely strangles incentive.” Not only is the researcher expected to labor and invent with no personal sharing or bonus beyond perhaps a grant renewal, but his invention may never see the light of day. Thus when Princeton University professor Alan Kornhauser developed a large-vehicle copiloting computer system, he had to have his wife launch the company, so that the freight handlers of America and his family could benefit.
In recent years, aware that such inventions might be worth something, universities have posited patents and prototypes in what is termed a transfer station. Theoretically, these departments reach out to the commercial community and develop some joint venture. Together, the university, the selected funder, and entrepreneurial producer bring the product to market and share the profits. But though these invention repositories may house a greater financial potential than the school’s football team, they operate sluggishly at best. The problem is that the individuals in these departments are typically school administrators with no experience in either launching a business or negotiating commercial contracts.
* E2 Lab Model. “Our goal is to exploit the IP within the universities for everyone’s benefit and to hasten the time of product inception to commercialization,” says Christodoulatos. The light dawned on Stevens Institute back in 2005. That year, two environmentally beneficial projects came to fruition. One was a plasma technology that could be used to purify and sterilize surfaces absolutely. This product held great potential for cleaning storm water passages, and for cleaning medical and surgical products. Concentrating mostly on the healthcare aspect, Stevens developed a spin-off company which was soon bought by Stryker Corporation, the medical technology giant in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
As the same time, Stevens’ scientists developed a new anti-pollutant chemical which absorbs arsenic from drinking water and renders it harmless. Arsenic typically gets introduced into water naturally from ground minerals and through commercial wood preservatives, such as treated logs. Once taken into the body it never leaves. Dow Chemical bought this second Stevens spin-off company, and today the poison absorber is used in thousands of home water filtering pitchers.
Stevens scientists noted that the average time from discovery to useful commercialization was an agonizing three to four years. Much of this bottleneck came from all production, commercial, and marketing considerations being postponed until after the invention was made and a prototype fully developed. The solution was originally the brainchild of Thomas Lechler, Stevens’ associate professor of technology management. If one could gather all the stakeholders at the point of inception, tasks could be performed simultaneously. This included appropriate members of the faculty, students, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and investors, industry partners, and representatives of government entities and regulatory agencies.
The process begins with a market-focused invention and research. Instead of talented, creative minds seeking into areas inspired by mere curiosity or the ability to become grant funded, they are asking, “what does our environment need?” EPA and environmental engineers are giving them the answers. Industrialists are telling them if their concept can be produced and investors are advising on the idea’s capital potential - all at once. E2-Lab heads are predicting a streamlined time of well under two years from laboratory discovery to marketplace. This rivals similar efforts in the private sector. * Initiating incentives. Under the E2-Lab process, the original inventor would gain equity in his discovery and share in the commercialized profits. Students also are encouraged to contribute their own ideas or join existent teams led by professors. Business students are being trained to aid the entrepreneurial and investing entities as the products are brought to fruition.
“We are calling all entrepreneurs throughout the state,” says Christodoulatos. “If you have commercial acumen, we have many products in the making, worthy of your review. Those interested in taking part in a E2-Lab initiative may call Christodoulatos at 201-216-5675 or visit Stevens’ Center for Environmental Systems site at http://www.cee.stevens-tech.edu/index.php.
The need for better environmental technologies, applied enmass has never been greater. It is only common sense to unite the nation’s greatest inventive braintrust with the most energetic and capable producers. With a little coming together and a lot of thoughtful effort, we hopefully can winch ourselves out of the environmental mire in which we find ourselves. B4
Christos Christodoulatos sees his field as a boiling pot of technological innovation. Thus he feels secure in predicting that within a mere year from now, at least half of all water treatment technologies will be based on nano materials. Already, nano-size particles of iron are being used to eliminate polluting PCB’s very effectively and inexpensively. Recently crystalline titanium dioxide particles have proven an excellent barrier for filtering out aqueous metals. “The capabilities are limitless and the applications, typically inexpensive,” says Christodoulatos.
All this nano and ultra tech stands in stark contrast to Christodoulatos’ early upbringing. Son of a farmer on the sylvan Greek Isle of Kefolonia, Christos experienced a peaceful, traditional youth. Coming to America, he earned a B.E. in chemical engineering in l982, then an M.E., both from New York’s City college. He took his Ph.D. in environmental engineering at Stevens Institute and for the past six years has been director of the Institute’s Center for Environmental Systems. While immersed in the laboratory today, Christodoulatos dreams someday of returning to a farming life.