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FEATURE
Universities: A Treasure Trove of Technologies
Ms. Irene Cheong
Director, NUS Industry Liaison Office

Introduction

Monoclonal antibodies, penicillin and medical X-rays. These are a few examples of biomedical innovations that started their lives in the research labs of public institutions, and have since been commercialized by industry partners, enabling society to reap from the benefits of improved healthcare. With their foundations based in research, innovation and knowledge creation, universities are ideal as a technology source for companies looking for new cutting-edge technologies. Through University-Industry partnerships, both parties can leverage on each other’s complementary skills, to achieve what neither could have done alone.

Within the context of the university commercialization environment, public-private partnerships (PPPs) have been important in helping universities translate their R&D into marketable products and solutions. Working with commercial partners, universities are able to do translational work and gain better insights into what the market needs. PPPs that the National University of Singapore (NUS) has been involved in come in different forms, including dedicated laboratories on the campus, strategic partnerships and industry event platforms.

Labs on Campus

NUS has partnered with commercial firms to jointly establish dedicated laboratories within the university to tackle specific research problems. The university and the company bring different critical resources to the table including specialized hardware and facilities, intellectual property, expertise and funding.

One example of such a partnership is with Carl Zeiss, a leader in the optical and opto-electronic industry. Carl Zeiss entered into a collaborative development agreement with NUS to investigate and develop a novel focal modulation microscopy method that can achieve deeper penetration depth than conventional confocal microscopy. NUS and Carl Zeiss jointly set up the Zeiss Microscopy Lab on NUS campus in April 2012. This S$6 million facility is the first of its kind in Asia and houses state-of-the-art Zeiss microscopy equipment to further research in areas such as materials and bioscience. Through this partnership, the parties can combine their extensive technical know-how, as well as gain access to Carl Zeiss’ innovative laboratory equipment in order to achieve new breakthroughs and insights.

Strategic Research Partnerships

NUS also relies on strategic research partnerships with industry to advance research and bring cutting-edge innovations closer to market. Both parties need to commit significant investments, in terms of funding, manpower, consumables and other resources. However, the advantage of these strategic alliances is that both parties can focus these resources on its core competencies, while benefiting from the others’ strengths.

In early 2014, NUS and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. formed a 5 year strategic alliance to identify and promote high-impact research. Under the agreement, the company will sponsor both multi-year and short term research grants in life sciences, healthcare and applied markets, such as cancer and diagnostics. The alliance will also support and help promote scientific exchanges between the company and the university through various other platforms.

Industry Events

NUS regularly partners with industry to organize joint events, such as consortiums or symposiums. These events are ideal platforms to discuss latest research advances, initiate collaborations to translate innovations into health-related applications and network with local and international experts within the field. For example in March 2014, an NUS lipidomics research team, together with Agilent Technologies, Chungnam National University (South Korea) and the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute (Australia), set up an international consortium, called the ‘Lipidomic Mapping of Natural Variations Consortium’. This consortium aims to address phenotype-genotype correlations within the ethnic diversity prevalent in Singapore and Asia Pacific region.

NUS also organizes its own events that aim to encourage industry research partnerships and the commercialization of NUS research. InnovFest is an annual event organized by NUS Enterprise, which brings together research scientists, industry and entrepreneurs, who are keen to commercialize new innovations and technology solutions. The 2014 InnovFest featured healthcare pitching sessions, an online meeting platform and pavilions in graphene and membrane technologies. These can all help to increase the number of PPPs.

Licensing

In addition to PPPs, NUS partners industry through other avenues to bring its research closer to market. NUS has had a long history of licensing promising technologies to suitable industrial partners.

NUS licenses its innovations to private sector firms, ranging from start-ups to SMEs and MNCs, as the commercialization of new technologies requires partners with the right risk-appetite, experience and resources. For instance, NUS recently licensed an omni-directional mobility wheel system to HOPE Technik, a Singapore-based engineering company. HOPE Technik worked closely with the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering and Engineering Design & Innovation Centre, to develop this into a self-powered wheel system that, when added to an ordinary hospital bed, enables it to move in all directions, requiring only one staff to operate it. This will allow hospital staff to easily transport hospital beds and patients around the facility. The NUS Medical Engineering Research and Commercialization Initiative (MERCI) assisted this University-industry collaboration by leading the test-bedding of a hospital bed prototype at the National University Hospital of Singapore.

Another example is the licensing of an NUS Faculty of Engineering technology that captures and isolates circulating tumor cells to Clearbridge BioMedics, a life sciences start-up company. The company is incubated by Clearbridge Accelerator, which is supported by the National Research Foundation’s Technology Incubation Scheme. Within less than a year, Clearbridge BioMedics had translated the lab prototype into a commercial prototype, which has made international waves, helping the company to win a number of awards, including the Asian Entrepreneurship Award 2012, Asian Innovation Awards 2012 and the Promising NUS Start-up Award 2013. In 2012, Clearbridge BioMedics launched the ClearCell® system for research applications and this is now being sold internationally. This is a good example where the university provided the raw technology and the commercial partner added funding, business expertise and further product development, in order to bring a new product to global markets.

Conclusion

There is little doubt that partnerships between universities and the industry have played a critical role in advancing R&D and the commercialization of new technologies. It is therefore important to continue to strengthen this bridge between the academia and the industry.

About the Author

Irene Cheong leads the Industry Liaison Office (ILO), the commercialization and business development arm of the National University Singapore (NUS). Her team works closely with the NUS faculty to enable win-win partnerships with academia and industry that result in advancement of technology and technology commercialization. ILO administers intellectual property management, contract management on behalf of NUS and several university partners (e.g, MIT, ETH) as well as managing commercialization grants from the National Research Foundation. She brings with her industry, government and venture capital experience-having worked locally, in the USA and in Europe.

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