AMBRIDGE, Mass. — The translucent rectangle looked like the plastic slip that might be protecting a new phone when it first emerges from its box.
But when Fiorenzo Omenetto pulled it out of his pocket at a panel discussion on Wednesday, he did so to demonstrate the wondrous properties of silk. “It’s sort of like my parlor trick,” said the Tufts professor of engineering as he held the sheet up to another panelist’s shirt and used a laser pointer to project images of faces and different scripts from the silk-based rectangle onto the fabric.
The optical possibilities were only one of many ideas that his team had been exploring while they played with silk proteins in the lab — and as they experimented, they found that certain materials from silkworm cocoons allowed blood to be preserved, largely unchanged, for long stretches of time without refrigeration. It was a nifty thought that had garnered the attention of media and industry alike, and won the Editor’s Choice category of the STAT Madness competition, a basketball-style tournament for science.
The big question was how to take that kind of technology out of the academic lab and into the lives of patients. That was the subject of “The Silk Road,” the HUBweek panel discussion in the Ragon Institute’s auditorium, at the heart of the bustling biotech neighborhood of Kendall Square.
“At the beginning, we thought it would be a very good thing to collect specimens in remote areas of the world,” explained Omenetto. “Exciting in principle, revenue model to be determined.”
The first encounter a research team has when trying to commercialize its work is with the technology transfer or licensing office within their own university. Panelist Vicki Sato, who chairs the board of directors of Vir Biotechnology, emphasized the importance of investing in those in-house brokers.
“These offices have been backwaters for a long time. They kind of went from being backwaters to being the center of attention,” she said. She has seen those first interactions too often become adversarial, she added, “and if you can’t get the thing out of the university, it’s not going to get anywhere.”
Kevin Bitterman, a partner at Atlas Ventures, said that the technology transfer office — and the university more broadly — has to foster a culture that makes that transition easier. “Harvard for many, many years had very stringent conflict-of-interest policies that many argued were hindering innovation, preventing academics from starting companies,” he said. He sees the loosening of those policies as a boon.
Omenetto suggested that one way to create that kind of culture would be to embed technology transfer officers within the research team itself — the way journalists might embed with military platoons — and for them to be given incentives to see the technology make its way into the world. “That would build some sense of ownership,” he said.
Jeff Karp, a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, agreed that those kinds of partnerships should begin earlier in the research project. “We’re drinking our own Kool-Aid, so there’s always blind spots,” he said.
The panelists also spoke about the importance of aiming for impact as opposed to income when trying to commercialize research. After all, only seldom will a patent end up boosting a university’s endowment soon after it is developed — but that doesn’t mean it won’t have an important effect later on.
After the event, you could see these ideas starting to be applied, right then and there, as a student approached Omenetto to ask about his own commercialization challenges, and the silk researcher suggested some folks to call.