In a University of Iowa clinic in Coralville this past summer, health care providers became the first in the nation to begin using autonomous artificial intelligence to diagnose diabetic retinopathy — when poorly controlled blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the eye.
A few miles away, at the UI Hospitals and Clinics main campus in Iowa City, UI biochemical engineering professor Aliasger K. Salem and a team of researchers and practitioners are breaking new ground — in the lab and then in the clinic — in regenerative medicine and cancer treatment.
Both UI efforts exemplify the ever-increasing connection between research and economic innovation in today’s higher education landscape and, specifically, among Iowa’s public universities. They also epitomize the growing importance of both endeavors and why, perhaps, they’re gaining strength as independent operations even as they become more connected.
“It’s a split, but it’s an interactive split,” Interim Vice President for Research and Economic Development John Keller, who also serves as UI Graduate College dean, told The Gazette about a planned reshaping of the UI Office of Research and Economic Development.
“Whether it’s a biomedical device or a new program, like a video game for example, or a new drug — the genesis of all that happens back on the main campus in individual people’s labs and studios,” he said. “That creativity, that leads to intellectual property that could be patentable.”
The push toward innovation and economic development — in the form of research-driven technologies and tools — has surged at the UI and Iowa State University, even as federal research dollars become more competitive and harder to secure and state funding for higher education declines.
Legislative appropriation cuts actually have played some role in propelling innovation — although administrators note revenue from patents can take years to realize, and royalties in the millions are more the exception than the rule.
Instead, many university researchers and scientists credit the innovation explosion more to their mission of improving lives, strengthening the economy and upping efficiency — as patents and intellectual property licenses often provide the most direct path toward community capitalization.
Or to put it simply, toward widespread use.
“As a taxpayer and someone living in Iowa, we are spending money on education and research, and what are we getting back?” said UI Health Care ophthalmologist Michael Abramoff.
He founded IDx-DR in Coralville in 2010 based on research in his UI lab and with a license through the UI Research Foundation to use artificial intelligent to treat eye disease.
“At the university, you see these brilliant people doing brilliant things, and you want it to benefit society,” Abramoff said. “There is the realization on all sides of the potential there. Let’s use it better.”
‘Where the split is likely to go’
UI Vice President for Research and Economic Development Daniel Reed in October 2017 announced plans to step down from that post. Instead of immediately hiring a successor, UI President Bruce Harreld — who’s no stranger to innovation, with work experience in the upper echelons of IBM — decided to slow the process and reshape the office, according to Keller.
A search committee hosted open forums seeking feedback on a new structure, inspiring a split to move the research office back toward its roots — “emphasizing the urgency of finding fresh and innovative ways to support research and scholarship in a rapidly shifting academic and federal landscape,” the university said.
“One of the things we really need to do is to try to expand our strengths, not just in the biomedical world but in other aspects of physical chemical engineering sciences, and doing that without forgetting our strengths in the creative work that happens on campus,” Keller told The Gazette.
The UI research office likely will retain its mission via the UI Research Foundation and development of property through patents and licenses. Separate, though, will be the pursuit of commercialization and start-ups.
“How many of those patents and intellectual property licenses and things are then commercializable into start-up companies and beyond?” Keller said. “That’s where the split is likely to go.”
The university, in addition to seeking a new head of its office of research, is hunting for a new “chief entrepreneurial officer” who will, according to a job description, “drive strategic direction of the University of Iowa’s economic development and innovation initiatives.”
A new vice president of research will oversee scholarship and creative activities; strengthen public, private, and corporate partnerships; and formulate and implement research-related policies to ensure regulatory compliance.
An entrepreneurial officer will expand on activities already surging across campus — including UI Ventures, which helps faculty launch businesses; Protostudios, offering a prototyping resource; MADE, created to help bring medical devices to market more quickly; and the UI Research Park, home to several UI start-ups in Coralville.
“We need to focus our vice president for research on developing innovative ways to support faculty in their discovery efforts and developing equally robust approaches for fueling innovation,” Harreld said in a statement over the summer.
‘The potential to make a big difference’
The University of Iowa in September announced plans to move forward with an entire stand-alone Innovation Center — which would cost $20 million to $25 million in its renovation of the flood-ravaged Art Building on campus.
The Board of Regents approved the UI request to move ahead with the new center, to be anchored by the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and include “active participation by all 11 colleges.”
The innovation-centered physical and administrative infrastructure enhancements follow a recent trend in emphasis toward creation at both the UI and Iowa State, where more researchers are applying for more money, and more inventions are finding their way to market.
The number of proposals, grants and contracts awarded UI researchers and scholars increased for the 2018 budget year that ended June 30. UI saw a 6 percent increase in proposals, or 229 submissions, from 3,715 to 3,944.
Awards rose 1 percent, with 31 more than in fiscal 2017, for a total 2,477, according to UI spokesman Stephen Pradarelli.
The institution’s total external funding increased from $554 million to $557.7 million — including $260.5 million from the federal government.
At Iowa State, sponsored funding for research and economic development likewise has spiked over the past decade — with $305 million in 2009 swelling to $509 million in 2018. That’s largely thanks to growing federal support, which has jumped from $152 million to $235.6 million over that time.
One recent example of the interplay between research and economic development — along with inter- and intra-university collaboration — comes in the form of federally funded research out of the ISU-based Nanovaccine Institute.
Researchers from Iowa State, the UI and the University of Nebraska Medical Center are joining forces to study and develop nanovaccines to treat pancreatic cancer, thanks in part to a five-year, $2.67 million grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.
The work employs research, evolving strategies and developing technologies to combat pancreatic cancer by loading fragments of proteins associated with the disease into nanoparticles that can be introduced to the body, potentially arming patient immune systems to target and kill cancer cells.
“This has the potential to make a big difference in terms of improving vaccines and their efficacy,” said UI professor Salem, among the researchers working on the collaboration.
Salem — who in 2004 came to the UI from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine — said he was attracted to the University of Iowa by its progress toward interdisciplinary collaboration and its diversity of thought.
“I was so impressed by how the University of Iowa’s different disciplines had an eagerness to work together,” he said, noting that’s only increased since he arrived in Iowa City.
While federal resources available through grants have not kept pace with the cost to conduct research — meaning animals and agents and equipment are more expensive — Iowa researchers have remained competitive, largely due to institutional support.
That comes not only in the form of money but administrative compulsion to collaborate. Technology transfer staff proactively reach out to researchers, inquire about their work and encourage them to think about patents and licenses.
“Kudos to them,” Salem said. “They go out to the different departments to give presentations on what makes a good patent or not and on what is considered novel or innovative. They reach out to give presentations and what they can do to help individual scientists get information patented and protected.”
And Salem articulated the view that university discovery and innovation not only makes fiscal sense and enables economic development but fulfills a moral obligation.
“I view the technology transfer group as a societal or university responsibility,” he said. “If you have people that are creating new inventions and new discoveries and then not getting them patented and not getting them licensed and into start-ups, the discovery doesn’t have the same impact.”
‘A long way to go’
Enter Karim A. Malek, senior associate to the UI provost, director of the UI Center for Computer-Aided Design, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the man behind Santos.
The UI Virtual Soldier Research program, housed within the UI College of Engineering’s Center for Computer-Aided Design, was created as a research tool for developing new technologies in digital human modeling and simulation.
The virtual soldier program has generated about $50 million in external funding, amassed a growing portfolio of projects and commercialized technologies, and forged invaluable partnerships with government entities — increasing the university’s prominence and its reach.
Malek noted the institution has met many milestones along that achievement path. For example, it recently obtained a $2.6 million contract with the U.S. Marines focused on injury prediction. And it’s continuing to contract with a national consultant capable of strengthening collaboration with the Department of Defense.
The intent, he said on the same day in September the university signed a cooperative research agreement with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, “is to make Iowa the center of attraction for human simulation.”
“What we are trying to do is really partner with them so we become part of their system — so they contact us any time they need us,” Malek said.
He reported research and the technology it produces is becoming a bigger focus — not only at the University of Iowa but across the United States. And, he observed, “we are getting there. But we have a long way to go.”
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