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Engineers commercialize their innovations

Ravi Kempaiah, who last year completed his PhD in mechanical engineering at UIC and now runs Zen Electric Bikes

In recent years, Michael Scott has helped publish almost 1,700 research papers in the life sciences; supported around 50,000 researchers worldwide; and had a hand in everything from the development of new COVID-19 vaccines to the use of camel stomach enzymes to produce cheese.

But Scott isn’t an incredibly prolific geneticist or biologist: he’s an associate professor in UIC’s mechanical and industrial engineering department. Scott’s key contribution wasn’t conducting biological research but developing SnapGene, an industry-leading software tool that helps researchers to design and simulate cloning procedures, accelerating the pace of biotech research and innovation.

“Most scientists were still using pen and paper,” Scott explained. “So we figured out what they needed, then did the work of making software that actually delivered it.”

Working with his next-door neighbor, a University of Chicago biologist, Scott spent more than a decade working evenings and weekends to perfect SnapGene. When the product finally launched in 2012, the response was immediate: the company was profitable, and in 2019 was acquired by a larger tech firm. Scott declines to say how much he made from the deal but admits he could retire comfortably. “If I’m still showing up to work at UIC, it’s because I love my job,” he laughed.

Tech transfer — the process of turning laboratory innovations into commercial businesses — is increasingly important for institutions such as UIC. In the 2021 fiscal year, licenses for UIC innovations generated $34.6 million, of which almost $29 million went to the university and over $7.6 million went to the inventors. In total, the College of Engineering accounted for 61 of 141 new UIC technologies and 37 of 106 patent filings — more than any other college except Medicine.

Since 2012, UIC’s Proof of Concept Awards Program has sought to accelerate tech transfer by providing grants of up to $200,000 to support campus innovators. Other resources include the Startup Network Accelerator Program, which involves a group of industry executives that help grow a handful of promising UIC startups each year; the Innovation Center, where students work in partnership with companies ranging from BMW to Dunkin’ Donuts; and the Entrepreneurial Support Program, which teaches faculty and students about the nuts and bolts of running a business.

“People who’ve been doing research are very proficient when it comes to their specific technology,” explained Steve Bob, director of the Entrepreneurial Support Program. “But they also need to understand business and learn to see the bigger picture.”

Taking it to the next level

That was the case for John Hetling, director of UIC’s Neural Engineering Vision Laboratory and associate professor of biomedical engineering. In 2009, he and two UIC graduate students launched RetMap, hoping to commercialize a revolutionary contact lens packed with electrodes capable of reading data from the human retina to diagnose neurological disorders ranging from Parkinson’s to schizophrenia. “It was a paradigm shift in electroretinographic sensors,” Hetling said. “But it was really too early-stage, so we just kind of floundered around for seven or eight years.”

It was only when Hetling took a more commercial approach that RetMap gained traction. By simplifying his design, Hetling was able to create a single-electrode sensor that could be more easily marketed. Since 2017, RetMap has raised about $2 million, and the company is now seeking regulatory approval. “We expect to launch our first human products by the end of the year, and within four years we hope to have $30 to $40 million in gross revenues,” Hetling said.

The long-term goal is still to roll out Hetling’s original multi-electrode sensor, along with new technologies such as an “eye cooler” used to prevent loss of vision following ocular trauma. In the meantime, RetMap is supplying sensors free of charge to National Institutes of Health researchers and is selling a canine version used by veterinarians to screen patients for cataract surgeries. Creating opportunities and learning to pivot is critical as you bring technologies from the laboratory to the real world, Hetling explained. “No champion for your technology is going to jump out of the woodwork,” he said. “You have to take the lead and bring it to market yourself.”

Bigger bang for your tech

Making the leap from academia to industry requires a shift in perspective but also brings important opportunities, says Alex Leow, a professor in psychiatry and bioengineering at UIC. Her company, KeyWise, develops smartphone apps that monitor users’ key-taps and use machine learning to detect warning signs of bipolar disorder and other neurological illnesses.

Leow developed her technology as part of an academic research project but realized that to reach a broad audience, she needed a commercial foundation. “We wanted to do it in a way that was maximally scalable,” she said.

By the time KeyWise launched, its underlying technology was used by more than 2,000 people and generated over 40 million key-taps. Recently, it licensed its technology to Pear Therapeutics, a digital therapeutics leader that is seeking to develop smartphone-based biomarkers for diseases, including depression, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, and insomnia.

“Running a commercial entity makes it much easier to work with other companies and translate our technology into real-world products,” Leow said. “If we’d stayed purely focused on scientific research, it would be hard to build these kinds of relationships.”

Inspiring future innovators

Building those bridges makes UIC engineers better teachers, too, says Ahmet Cetin, a research professor in electrical and computer engineering. In the early 2000s, Cetin founded Oncam-Grandeye, a manufacturer of high-tech cameras, before selling the company to private investors in 2013.

Today, Cetin’s devices are used in commercial spaces all over the world — and Cetin often draws on his commercial experience when teaching. “If you just explain the theory, students fail to see the link back to the real world,” he explained. “Connecting my classes back to an actual business that I built makes it all so much more concrete in their minds.”

That’s especially important because many students are eager to find ways to build businesses and amplify the impact of their laboratory work. Case in point: Ravi Kempaiah, who last year completed his PhD in mechanical engineering at UIC and now runs Zen Electric Bikes, using his knowhow to create bike batteries that last three times longer. “My time at UIC was spent understanding why batteries are expensive, and how to make them cheaper,” Kempaiah said. “That planted the seed of what became Zen eBikes.”

Kempaiah started selling his $3,990 bikes in late 2021 and has already taken $100,000 in preorders. He hopes to hit $1 million in sales this year, then begin ramping up production in North America and introduce new products. The ultimate goal, he says, is to use electrochemical breakthroughs to solve big challenges such as climate change.

“There’s a real need for products that can help us solve these big problems,” Kempaiah said. “Doing the foundational research is great — but if we want our work to benefit humanity, we need to bring it out of the library and into the real world.”