Leila Safavi-Tehrani

Surfboards hang from the ceiling and Ms. Pac-Man lurks around the corner as would-be business moguls come and go: a bearded Saudi Arabian hoping to launch a camel milk empire, a wavy-haired cognitive science professor who converted a Roomba vacuum into a therapeutic robot, and a physicist whose laser X-ray machine could lead to compression-free mammograms.

These are just a handful of the concepts percolating in UCI’s innovation pipeline, which has produced hundreds of patents and products over the years, from a molecule that could potentially reverse Alzheimer’s disease to a device that uses belly motion to recharge cellphones. Because the path from laboratory to marketplace can be tricky, the university is stepping up efforts to nurture campus entrepreneurship and increase industry collaboration.

The goal is to spur new companies and jobs in Orange County, attract more creative faculty and students, and – as a side benefit – boost royalties and licensing fees from Anteater research.

The central clearinghouse for this activity is a beach-themed outpost known as the Cove, headquarters of UCI Applied Innovation. Brimming with high-tech gear (from virtual reality goggles to 3-D printers), seminars and social events (such as “Monday Night Football” parties with halftime startup pitches), Applied Innovation acts as a matchmaker connecting UCI ingenuity to investors, mentors and corporate partners.

“We’re reinventing university innovation,” says Richard Sudek, the organization’s executive director and chief innovation officer. The approach, which kicked off in late 2015, is gaining steam. Nearly 4,000 visitors a month now pass through the hub, and – together with UCI’s more established Beckman Laser Institute and Calit2 incubators – the endeavor has won plaudits from outside observers.

“UC Irvine deserves credit for pioneering a system that engages private resources to support faculty, student and alumni entrepreneurs, and does so in a very efficient way,” says Sean Randolph, senior director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, which recently issued a report on innovation and startup programs at all 10 University of California campuses. UCI’s template, the report says, is “dynamic and sophisticated.”

“We’re reinventing university innovation.”

Reshaping Orange County’s Economy

Flanked by a B-1 bomber model and a large, illuminated globe in his Newport Beach office, former Rockwell International CEO Don Beall and his son Ken, a real estate entrepreneur, discuss their vision of Orange County as the next great tech mecca, propelled by pioneering research at UCI.

“My dad used to attend a breakfast lecture series in which UCI scientists would explain their latest discoveries,” recalls Ken Beall. “He always came back saying, ‘You won’t believe what they’re working on over there.’”

To help transform such breakthroughs into companies, the Bealls have funded various campus programs over the years, such as the business school’s Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which focuses on academics, curricula and hands-on learning.

A few years ago, the duo decided something more comprehensive was needed.

UCI officials agreed. Part of the impetus was a changing mindset on college campuses. “Younger faculty and students want to make an impact in the world,” says Pramod Khargonekar, vice chancellor for research and Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering & computer science. Universities that don’t cater to that desire will have trouble attracting top talent, he says.

Another factor was stiffer competition for dwindling government dollars. To justify more funding, “we need to demonstrate that the research done on campus benefits society,” says Chancellor Howard Gillman.

The Bealls had their eyes on a bigger picture: economic shifts at home and abroad. To keep America competitive, they reasoned, it was critical to revamp and speed up the process for bringing university innovations to life. Among other things, they suggested business advisory panels for each UCI dean to identify and shepherd projects with commercial potential.

“If a professor is developing the next ‘sliced bread’ and gets industry input, he may learn that a slight modification would turn his invention into a billion-dollar company,” says Ken Beall. “He might even get private-sector funding at a very early stage.”

Such collaborations could also help turn Orange County into another Silicon Valley, replacing the region’s once-dominant aerospace, defense and land development titans with medical device, computer gaming, cybersecurity and other tech firms spawned by UCI research, says Don Beall.

The only missing ingredient is access, his son adds: “The campus is built in a circle. If you’re an investor or corporation, where’s the front door?”

In late 2015, the Beall Family Foundation answered that question with a $5 million gift to create what would eventually become UCI Applied Innovation, which is located along California Avenue in University Research Park.

‘The Valley of Death’

Clutching several plush toys, Jack Miller dashes to the front of the auditorium and demonstrates a talking monkey to a crowd of beer-drinking “Monday Night Football” fans. Halftime product presentations at the Cove are one of Applied Innovation’s signature showcases for startups.

Miller – a lanky mechanical engineer who grew up in Palo Alto, California, and recently moved his company to Orange County – leaves the event impressed by both the venue and the vibe. “There’s nothing like this up north,” he says. “It’s a cool spectacle of TV screens and gadgetry.”

And then some.

Roam around the 31,000-square-foot Cove or its next-door annex and there’s no telling what you’ll encounter: an orange plastic bust of Abraham Lincoln sitting by a 3-D printer, a lunchtime seminar on “How to Create a Killer Brand Name,” a virtual reality tour of the UCI campus, or maybe someone playing “Donkey Kong” near a row of Tiki god barstools.

But behind the quirky accoutrements is a serious mission: to help UCI inventors avoid “the valley of death,” where brilliant ideas and promising research can falter for want of funding or sage advice.

To counter such obstacles, UCI Applied Innovation offers just about everything a budding entrepreneur needs, from patent attorneys to cash grants, says Sudek, a veteran businessman, angel investor and executive coach who was recruited by the Bealls.

Versafit, an app to help people find exercise partners, was an early beneficiary. Launched two years ago by then-MBA student Julian Clarke and alumnus Alton Chislom, the startup began strongly, winning favorable notices from Inc. magazine and CNBC. Then technical snafus derailed the app, forcing the founders to shut it down.

The pair turned to Applied Innovation for assistance. Guided by program mentors, Versafit retooled its software, changed the target audience to people looking for pickup basketball games and group activities, and devised a new financial model.

“The one-on-one mentorship with the Cove’s experts-in-residence was extremely helpful,” Chislom says. Versafit 2 is expected to debut early this year. It’s just the tip of UCI’s innovation iceberg.

“Younger faculty and students want to make an impact in the world.”

The Next Great Invention

In its half-century history, UCI has midwifed scores of groundbreaking ideas, across all departments.

The school’s biggest commercial hit – one that has earned more than $55 million for UCI – was inspired by a 1992 baseball game. Dr. J. Stuart Nelson, a surgeon and biomedical engineering professor working at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic, had been closing in on a way to obliterate port-wine stain birthmarks with lasers. The sticking point was that using intense light beams to destroy the discoloring blood vessels also damaged the skin’s surface. Nelson needed a practical method to cool only the outermost layer of a patient’s skin during laser surgery.

His eureka moment came after watching a foul ball ricochet off a batter’s ankle. A trainer emerged from the dugout and numbed the injury by spraying it with ethyl chloride. A few days later, Nelson and his colleagues jury-rigged a Toyota Camry fuel injector valve they had bought at Pep Boys and zapped themselves with Freon during laser exposure. The experiment led to a patent for “dynamic cooling,” which revolutionized laser skin treatments.

What will UCI’s next blockbuster be? A review of Applied Innovation’s campus invention database and other materials turns up a galaxy of contenders, including:

  • A chemical compound that lets people shed pounds while eating more
  • A pocket-size DNA tester
  • A contraption that removes alcohol from pumped breast milk, enabling nursing moms to drink
  • Miniature nuclear reactors that create cancer-fighting radioactive isotopes

One of the most intriguing startups is a transplant from Northern California: Lumitron Technology Inc. Although the company’s initial patents were developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the scientist who owns them, Chris Barty, expects to add dozens more at UCI, where he recently joined the faculty as a professor of physics & astronomy.

Lumitron’s core product, he says, features X-ray powers that would make Superman jealous. Using laser photons and gamma rays, it creates images that are up to 1,000 times clearer than a traditional X-ray or MRI while producing up to 100 times less radiation, Barty says. The device could also pave the way for compression-free mammograms, he says.

Medicine is just one application. The original purpose of Barty’s research was to improve security at ports. Unlike current screening technologies, Lumitron machines can see through lead to detect smuggled uranium-235, he says. Other potential benefits include eradicating tumors and even destroying nuclear waste.

More discoveries are likely, Barty says, once Lumitron’s first UCI device comes online, probably in early 2020.

Meanwhile, the university’s entrepreneurial push is seeping into classrooms and faculty reviews. Some departments are starting to look at patents and startup activity as factors in measuring job performance, campus officials say.

On the instructional side, biomedical undergraduates and graduate chemical and biochemical engineering students are now required to participate in a yearlong program called BioENGINE, in which five- and six-member groups design and build medical devices suitable for commercialization. A gadget that diagnoses burn wounds is one of the projects that was spun off into a startup.

“Having only nine months to develop our device was a challenge,” says Maaikee Kiyoe Pronda, data analysis officer for Salux Diagnostics’ mostly female team. “There is a definite clinical need for this technology, and it was rewarding to see our device go from a napkin design to prototype development.”

UCI Applied Innovation co-sponsors BioENGINE, which is funded through a state grant and industry donations.

Tom Yuen, a 1974 electrical engineering grad who went on to co-found AST Research, a computer conglomerate, wishes such entrepreneurial programs had been around when he was a student. “I started my first business in my garage, and it took me a very long time to get my company off the ground,” says Yuen, now CEO of PrimeGen Biotech. “It would have been great to have had a resource like the Cove to help expedite my ideas and avoid common business pitfalls.”

Alumni, student and faculty entrepreneurs can apply to UCI’s Wayfinder incubator here.

Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.