Connecting the Dots
What do you get when you combine a vibrant research community with a sizeable international population on campus and a global network of colleagues and partners around the world? A groundswell of interest and excitement like the one that’s long been building at BU, which centers on the creation—and effective dissemination—of new biomedical technologies designed for resource-limited settings and patient populations in the developing world.
“Right now, there’s no eye of the storm,” says Michael Pratt of BU Technology Development (TD), “but energy is building and systems are forming” as faculty and students work with one another and with this entrepreneurial service to advance what he calls “innovation around innovation”—that is, novel ways to get new technologies to the people who need them most.
The process of ensuring that technologies developed by BU researchers are distributed in a far-reaching, socially responsible way happens on several levels, starting with numerous grassroots applications by faculty members in medicine, public health, and many other fields. A recent trip to Nicaragua over spring break, for example, saw 11 undergraduates and three faculty members from the College of Engineering put senior design projects to the test in a highly cost- and resource-limited setting.
“Going to Nicaragua showed me that even simple things are complicated without the right resources, and that as a biomedical engineer, I can make devices that can improve a country’s health care system,” says senior Molly Keenan.
Two students who went on that trip are also members of the Lab for Engineering Education & Development (LEED), launched in 2010 by Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Muhammad Zaman. In addition to training engineers to take the realities of life in developing nations into account, LEED aims to enable individuals in those countries to break out of the donor-recipient cycle and actively participate in improving public health.
TD’s Global Accelerators of Technology Entrepreneurship (GATE) program follows a similar approach. “GATE takes intellectual property developed at BU and looks for ways to bring it into developing markets,” says Managing Director Vinit Nijhawan. “Involving local entrepreneurs in the process makes it sustainable in a way that aid is not.”
The goal is not to generate income, he adds, but rather to bring technologies to countries where businesses normally wouldn’t even bother to file a patent application, let alone interview potential end users, identify needed design modifications, and employ other market research techniques. “It’s basically what you would do if you were launching a product in the U.S.,” says Pratt, “which is exactly what needs to be done.”
Interdisciplinary teams of graduate and undergraduate students from public health, engineering, medicine, and business assist GATE in the process of commercializing technologies for developing markets.
“They find answers to such questions as: Does the medical community in Chile or Ecuador need this device? What are the challenges to commercializing it here? How do we build a network with NGOs and ministries of health in Africa?” says Azatuhi Ayrikyan, an analyst at TD. “And getting students to think about the importance of shelf life—and other things you don’t need to worry about when you’re making a device at the Photonics Center—is making them better researchers, too.”
Ayrikyan and others, in turn, help students and faculty translate their research into terms that businesspeople can understand. “We basically say, you have all the dots in place, but you need to call them by their proper names, and draw lines between them,” in order for investors and companies to see a constellation emerge, she explains.
TD’s efforts to push adoption of socially responsible licensing practices began in 2009, led by then Executive Director of Technology Transfer Ashley Stevens.
“It did lengthen the negotiations, because these were new concepts to licensees,” says Stevens—who now serves as special assistant to the vice president for research—of the decision to add clauses about tiered pricing and a reservation of human rights, which would allow BU to reassert its patent if a company licensing intellectual property failed to make it available, affordably, in the developing world. “But we got it done.”
A workshop planned for 2012 will identify best practices and the way forward in socially responsible licensing for health care, agriculture, and clean technologies. Participants will include the top executives from Boston University and the University of Warwick in England, as well as CEOs, policy makers, licensing professionals, and academics from around the world.
“BU has a truly global perspective,” says BU President Robert A. Brown, “and we’re proud that our faculty are creating technologies that address needs in parts of the world that might not be the focus of others.”