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University sixteenth in patents

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 29 - April 20, 1995

Virginia Tech is sixteenth in the nation in the number of patents issued to U.S. universities in 1994--and fifth among universities without medical schools (behind MIT, CalTech, NC State, and Iowa State). Discoveries by faculty members and students earned 28 patents last year, compared to 18 in 1993.

Discoveries range from a quick, inexpensive way to screen chemicals for pharmaceutical activity against disease conditions, to technology that will clean contaminated water and soil, and include improved anti-cancer compounds, purification of biopharmaceuticals, more efficient electronic converters, and an improved trellis system for raspberry growers. The patent recipients were recognized Friday at a luncheon sponsored by Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties (VTIP), Inc.

"The commercial utilization of discoveries and inventions has proven to be one of the most efficient and effective ways of disseminating knowledge and technology to the world `outside' academe," said Ted Kohn, intellectual properties manager at Virginia Tech, and director of VTIP Inc. "Patent protection of technology provides a competitive edge and lifts the technology into that group which is seriously considered for development. This significant increase in VTIP's portfolio of patented technologies augurs well for the continued growth in our licensing and commercialization effort."

During fiscal 1993-94, intellectual properties generated revenues in excess of $600,000 and, in addition to generating supplemental income for faculty inventors, provided sponsored funding of university research, Kohn said. "The $1-million milestone is expected to be achieved before the end of the '90s. Virginia Tech-generated technology is also expected to make an ever-increasing contribution to local and state economic development by the start-up of new small high-tech companies."

VTIP's patent portfolio exceeds 100 patents with 90 active licenses. University patents have resulted in more than 20 start-up companies.

One new firm located in Blacksburg as a result of a patent issued in 1994. William Velander, professor of chemical engineering, Wolfgang Glasser, professor of wood chemistry, and Jeffrey A. Kaster, former graduate student in chemical engineering, refined a wood-derived substance to separate pharmaceutical proteins from milk, blood, and other aqueous solutions. Cellulose, a polymer from trees, is purified and reshaped as spherical beads to which the target proteins will adhere. "They work because they are mostly water and large molecules fit through them," Velander said. The co-inventors credit the efforts of the many graduate students, post-doctoral research associates, and laboratory technicians in Virginia Tech's Biobased Materials Center for the success of the work. Velander's efforts were also supported by the National Science Foundation. The Virginia Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), which supported the Biobased Materials Center, has licensed the patent to LigoChem Inc. a new biotechnology company in Blacksburg, for commercialization.

Kohn noted that the rapid increase in the number of issued patents in recent years "would not have been possible without the cooperation and assistance of the CIT, and of private sector research sponsors."

The CIT is also marketing:

* a quick and inexpensive way to screen the effectiveness of thousands of chemicals for pharmaceutical activity against specific disease conditions, developed by former graduate student William J.H. Bender and chemistry professor Raymond Dessy. A glass fiber about the size of a hair is first coated with a metal film and special materials. When enzymes, attached to this surface, react with their substrates, the quality of light passing through the fiber will change. These sensors are smaller and require less test materials than other approaches, and are inexpensive enough to be discarded.

* two new patents in the Virginia Power Electronics Center. Former graduate student Richard Farrington and faculty members Milan Jovanovic and Fred Lee invented a family of electronic converters that improve the efficiency of power supplies, such as are found in every computer. The invention can improve performance without additional components. "In a PC, for example, this could mean a smaller power supply and possibly a lower price," explains Jovanovic, who is also director of Delta Power Electronics Lab. Inc.

The second VPEC patent by faculty member Dusan Borojevic, former student Vlatko Vlatkovic, and Lee is for power supply technology for use in telecommunications and computer equipment. The new technology converts electricity to a form needed by electronic circuits, making possible smaller, lighter, and lower-cost power supplies with improved performance and reduced energy consumption. Companies such as IBM, AT&T, and Ericson have expressed an interest in the invention.

* two new patents in the Fiber and Electro-Otpics Research Center for sensors and sensing systems, and for fiber-optic coupler station and fabrication techniques. The sensors, developed by faculty members Kent Murphy and Michael Gunther, former graduate student Ashish Vengsarkar, and FEORC director Richard Claus, were originally designed to measure mechanical loads on materials and structures, such as when you step on your bathroom scale, Claus explains. "The same sensor technology can be used to measure temperature, acceleration, chemical changes--it is a basic platform for all kinds of measurement."

Couplers are used to split the light or message as it travels through fibers such as those that connect telephones, computers, or virtually every modern telecommunication device and many scientific instruments. The patent has been licensed to Litton Industries.

* and a system for controlling jet aircraft engine inlet noise by using compact sound sources placed in the inlets. The sound sources produce sound that cancels the jet noise with mirror-image sound waves. The discovery was the work of Walter F. O'Brien, director of the turbofan engine lab and mechanical engineering department head; former graduate student Mary E. Dungan; Christopher Fuller, director of the vibration and acoustics lab; and faculty members Ricardo A. Burdisso and Russell H. Thomas. A research turbofan jet engine is a unique facility of the ME department. "We are the only ones doing noise control research on a real engine," explains Burdisso. The research was supported by NASA.

Bristol-Myer Squibb sponsored work by chemistry professor David Kingston and colleagues, who received four patents for developments with taxol, a well-known anti-cancer compound that comes from the bark of the slow-growing and scarce Pacific Yew. Two patents are for forming water soluble derivatives of taxol. Being water-soluble makes the substance easier to administer. Former graduate student Zhi-Yang Zhao is co-inventor.

The third patent is for a method of converting cephalomannine to taxol. Cephalomannine, which occurs in the bark with taxol, has a similar structure. Kingston and former graduate student Anthony Molinero were successful in changing it to taxol, which significantly increases taxol availability from the endangered Pacific Yew. In the meantime, Bristol-Myer Squibb has developed a way to develop taxol from a renewable resource, Kingston reports.

A fourth patent developed by Kingston and former student Gamini Samaranayake is for taxol with a rearranged structure, which has some advantages over the original taxol.

Staff members from Dow Chemical were co-inventors of a patent with a faculty member and a student with the NSF Science and Technology Center for High Performance Polymeric Adhesives and Composites at Virginia Tech. Center director James McGrath and former graduate student Daniel Knauss with Maurice Marks, Stephen Bales, Thomas Chamberlin, and Michael Mullins, all of Dow, developed an improved form of carbonate polymers, which will enhance resistance to solvents of materials such as is used in snow mobiles, all-terrain vehicles, and safety glass.

A second center patent was issued to McGrath, former graduate student Keith Lyon, center researcher Richey Davis, and former graduate students Anne Texier and Attila Gungor for developing fine powders of ketone-containing aromatic polymers, and the manufacturing process. Developing such powders and methods for processing them means that solvents will not be necessary in manufacturing these polymer products. Elimination of solvents from processing increases safety to the worker and reduces toxic industrial wastes. This patent is being marketed by the CIT.

Another private firm active in patent development is Akzo.

* Two such patents by Garth Wilkes, chemical engineering professor, and Bing Wang, a post-doctoral associate now at 3M, concern the synthesis of novel transparent organic-inorganic coatings. These materials enhance abrasion resistance of the substrate that they are placed upon. Wilkes also has a patent with his student Anthony B. Brennan, now on the faculty at the University of Florida, for the use of a polymeric catalyst in the synthesis of sol-gel derived ceramic or hybrid organic/inorganic materials.

* Harry W. Gibson, a chemistry professor, earned three patents--two of them sponsored by Akzo. Gibson and colleagues design molecules that allow novel blends or new uses for polymers. Former graduate student Yadollah Delaviz is co-inventor on the Akzo patents. Former graduate student Ashish Pandya is co-inventor on the third patent for commercially valuable polymeric ketones and the method for preparing them. Polymeric ketones are used in jet airplane skin, for example.

VTIP also markets university patents, including:

* a large-scale microbubble-generator system that can be used to clean contaminated soil and wastewater, developed by chemical engineering professors Donald Michelsen and the late Felix Sebba. Pilot studies are ongoing to treat hazardous releases by injecting microbubbles into wells at polluted sites to scour contaminants and introduce oxygen to enhance biological breakdown of gasoline and other pollutants. Microbubbles can also improve flotation of paper and food particles for recycling, reuse, or disposal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is funding a field test of the technology at a contaminated Air Force site.

* a lift-up support system or trellis for raspberries that allows growers to mow the canes. Inventor Herbert Stiles, researcher at the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Experiment Station, reports, "Producers were having problems removing the canes on fall-fruiting raspberries. Mowing reduced hand labor, but the trellises were an obstacle." He designed a support system that can be lifted so that a sickle bar can cut the canes.

Other patents received last year include:

* Refinement of a custom-fitting earplug formed in the ear using foaming action, invented by John G. Casali, professor of industrial and systems engineering, and former student Daniel W. Mauney.

* A carburetor with a lagging bypass air valve, invented by former mechanical engineering graduate student Jeffery Beall.

* Technology for dynamic measurement of material strength and life under cyclic loading, developed by Ken Reifsnider, director of Virginia Tech's Composite Materials and Structures Center, former graduate student Ahmad Razvan, and Mehran Elahi, a doctoral candidate in engineering science and mechanics.

* A means of synthesis of cyclitols from substituted arene diols, developed by chemistry professor Tomas Hudlicky.

* Methane oxidative coupling, developed by former chemical engineering faculty member Donald van der Vaart.

* Non-symmetrical inductive sensors used in proximity sensing devices, developed by former graduate student Kofi-D. Anim-Appiah, who is now at Eaton Corp., electrical engineering faculty member Sedki Riad, and former faculty member Shinzo Onishi. The sensors are used in automated industrial applications and are an essential part of robotics. The Virginia Tech invention doubles the range of proximity sensors. It has been licensed to Eaton Corp. and is now in production.

* a method of reducing flow metastability in an ejector nozzle, developed by mechanical engineering faculty member Alan A. Kornhauser and graduate student Peter Menegay.

"The significant number of students involved in the creation and development of these patented technologies is noteworthy," says Len Peters, vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School. "It reflects the close interaction of research and teaching at Virginia Tech. The learning experience of helping in the creation of new knowledge makes these students better prepared and more valuable in their future career endeavors and more completely fulfills the educational mission of the university."