Recently, The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) hosted its first Innovation Awards. This inaugural ceremony celebrated the work of 16 researchers who have significantly contributed to creating a university environment that promotes innovation. The awardees included those who recently obtained patents for their inventions and individuals who received licensing revenue for their discoveries.
The University also presented its inaugural Innovator of the Year Award, recognizing mechanical engineering professor Yusheng Feng who had the highest innovation productivity based on invention disclosures, patent filings, issued patents and licenses to corporations signed over the past fiscal year.
This event highlighted the outstanding progress UTSA has made in fostering innovation and technology commercialization among its faculty and students. In fact, over the past five years, UTSA has built a robust ecosystem to encourage entrepreneurial thinking among its faculty and students and to assist them in translating exciting discoveries into innovative products with commercial potential.
A culture of innovation is important, because scientific research and inventions are essential for progress. Basic research leads to an understanding of the working principles of nature and materials and to applied research that produces useful technologies and products. The latter, in addition to addressing societal needs, creates new companies and well-paying jobs.
Innovation changes the equation. Since the 1900s, it has made our nation stand apart from the rest. Whether it is the first airplane or the first automobile, computers, the Internet or smart phones, it is the U.S. that has led the way. Innovation has made communities flourish and achieve greatness. Examples are Boston, San Diego, Silicon Valley and, closer to home, Austin. At the heart of all such communities is an innovation engine – a strong research university. That is why it is so important that UTSA successfully plays this role for San Antonio. As the city’s largest university, UTSA is committed to this vision.
UTSA researchers cover a myriad of topics and are focused on addressing the grand challenges facing our world in this century – problems related to health, security, education and sustainable infrastructure such as energy and water. Of particular interest are solutions with both a positive local impact on our region and global ramifications.
For example, UTSA researchers in health and kinesiology are addressing obesity and its comorbidities using both behavioral and metabolic approaches. Using community-based health promotion paradigms, they are exploring the feasibility and effectiveness of lifestyle modifications for reduction of risk for type-II diabetes in underserved Hispanic women living on San Antonio’s west side.
UTSA excels in research on infectious diseases, and several of its discoveries have been patented and licensed to companies for vaccine development. In the area of Alzheimer’s disease, UTSA dean George Perry was recently ranked as the world’s top expert (Expertscape.com, Nov. 14, 2013). UTSA also has a large number of faculty members performing cutting edge research in other areas of neuroscience.
Working closely with CPS Energy, UTSA’s sustainable energy research group, led by Les Shephard, is studying micro-grids in electricity distribution systems and exploring ways to harvest and distribute solar energy more efficiently.
As the regional economy booms due to the presence of the Eagle Ford Shale, UTSA engineers are working on technologies that can lead to more effective fracking. Others at UTSA are collaborating with the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) to develop technologies to clean and reuse water in drilling and oil recovery operations, thus keeping our environment clean.
Water shortage seems to be endemic in south Texas and UTSA scientists are working on using nanotechnology to create better techniques to clean and recycle water.
There are ongoing collaborations with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) to more accurately predict leaks from the thousands of miles of water and sewer pipes in the city. There is also research underway to better understand aquifer storage and recovery systems such as those used by SAWS.
UTSA is already known as one of the national leaders for cyber security education and research. It is recognized as a Center of Excellence for Education and Research by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. To this outstanding foundation, the University is now adding a strong program in cloud computing and is in the midst of recruiting several new faculty and researchers. In fact, the cloud computing program is perhaps one of the largest new initiatives in UTSA history. Such an effort would not be possible without the generosity of the 80/20 Foundation and the advice of industry leader Graham Weston.
Collaborations are critical to the kind of outstanding research which engenders innovation. UTSA faculty and the Department of Defense are discussing the potential of brain waves to control machines and drones. Local collaborations with the San Antonio Military Medical Center, which is one the nation’s largest such establishments, include work on developing bone graft materials that can assist in the healing of massive bone injuries caused by explosions or accidents. In collaboration with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and the UT Health Science Center – San Antonio, researchers are investigating the potential of stem cells for healing wounds and curing diseases.
Once the ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship takes root it, does not stay confined to faculty. Last year, UTSA alumna Jordan Kaufmann, Ph.D. launched Cardiovate Inc., a company focused on the development and commercialization of tissue engineered arteries. Cardiovate’s technology, based on Kaufmann’s doctoral work at UTSA, could revolutionize the treatment of aortic aneurysms and also assist in bypass surgeries and dialysis. Kaufmann won a University of Texas system-wide competition for best new technology, competing against innovation powerhouses such as MD Anderson and UT-Austin.
Her invention has the potential to save countless lives.
UTSA’s culture of innovation is contagious and even undergraduate students have started participating. Somewhere among these students could be the next Michael Dell or Mark Zuckerburg.
For example, a group of UTSA students has invented a system to cool prosthetic devices so that users, such as our wounded warriors, can wear them comfortably in warm climates like San Antonio. Another group invented an in situ kidney-cooling device that will enable surgeons to perform surgery for longer without damaging the kidney. Yet another undergraduate invention involves special helmets for preemie babies to prevent deformation of their heads. And a UTSA student invented a braking system for cars that harvests energy from the braking action.
All these inventions have resulted in the launch of new companies that are generating funds from investors, creating jobs and contributing to the economic growth of San Antonio. Additionally, every year, UTSA produces more than 5,000 graduates, adding to the high caliber workforce in our city and region. Such is the power of a research university.
The steady growth of research across a variety of disciplines at UTSA and its rapid rise toward Tier One status is already adding immense potential to the future of San Antonio. And the innovation engine at UTSA is just beginning to gain speed. The best is yet to come.
Dr. Agrawal is the Interim Vice President of Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). He holds the Peter Flawn Professorship in Biomedical Engineering. Prior to joining UTSA in 2003, he worked at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA). Before that he served on the faculty at Duke University. He obtained his Ph.D. from Duke University (1989), MS from Clemson University (1985) and a B. Tech. from IIT-Kanpur, India. Prior to his latest appointment he served as the Dean for the College of Engineering at UTSA.