Tackling the gender gap in innovation
ANN ARBOR—In recognition of World Intellectual Property Day, the University of Michigan Office of Tech Transfer today recognizes the achievements of U-M faculty and researchers, who, since 2011, have been responsible for more than 900 patents—laying the groundwork for dozens of products, services and startup companies that are already contributing toward the betterment of society.
The day celebrates the societal and economic good such creation—that often leads to new products and startups—can bring, said Kelly Sexton, U-M associate vice president for research-technology transfer and innovation partnerships.
Following the lead of the World Intellectual Property Organization, which marks this year’s World Intellectual Property Day by celebrating “the brilliance, ingenuity, curiosity and courage of women who are driving change in our world and shaping our common future,” U-M Tech Transfer shares the stories of five women innovators.
Ellen Arruda, a mechanical engineering professor, developed a design strategy for structures such as helmets that must dissipate energy over and over and over again using elastic and viscoelastic materials. These impact-resistant structures may be used to better protect wearers from soft tissue injuries, including traumatic brain injury.
“Creative products and processes that improve quality of life is what IP is all about,” Arruda said. “Women have a proven track record of creative solutions that help people. The IP process puts women’s products and processes into the hands of people who need them.”
Jane Huggins, associate research scientist and a foremost researcher on brain-computer interfaces, provided the foundation for U-M startup Neurable’s technology that interprets intent based on a user’s brain activity to control of software and connected devices. The research in U-M’s Direct Brain Interface lab led to Neurable’s successful $2 million seed round to bring its software platform to the market for use in virtual/augmented reality content and headsets.
“People often underestimate a woman’s technical skills. They are not surprised when a woman is creative or comes up with new ideas, but they may be surprised that she can do her own soldering. Skills that we tend to gender stereotype are often only a matter of training or opportunity,” Huggins said.
Olivia Walch, who earned her doctorate in applied and interdisciplinary math at U-M, developed the Entrain app. It helps travelers shift their circadian rhythms to reduce jet lag in a new time zone.
“If you invented it, why not take it to the next level? Every woman visibly commercializing her technology paves the way for another,” Walch said.
Susan Shore, biomedical engineering professor, and her team developed an experimental device to help quiet the phantom sounds caused by tinnitus by targeting unruly nerve activity in the brain.
“Asin all areas of endeavor, in academics and in industry, women still lag men in terms of salary and leadership positions. This is in spite of equal numbers of women entering science at the undergraduate and even graduate levels,” Shore said. “Clearly, the culture in both academics and entrepreneurship needs to be dramatically shifted.”
Mingyan Liu, electrical engineering and computer science professor, developed a system that analyzes internet measurement data to provide a cybersecurity rating for an enterprise. The company she co-founded, QuadMetrics, gives firms and insurers a predictive tool to understand and quantify a company’s cybersecurity risk posture. It was purchased by FICO in 2016.
“Women face more barriers in commercializing their inventions, but as long as we don’t let them discourage us barriers only make better commercialized products,” Liu said. “Women have no shortage of fantastic ideas and great inventions. The more we pursue tech transfer, the more we can break down these barriers.”
University research discoveries are always early-stage inventions, requiring significant financial investment to bring them to the market where society can realize their benefits as new therapeutics, medical devices, products and services. Strong intellectual property protection allows U-M to transfer these technologies to existing businesses and startup companies that bring these technologies to market.
U-M Tech Transfer is responsible for the commercialization of university research discoveries. Last fiscal year, the office received 444 new inventions, created 173 option and license agreements, and helped launch 12 startups.
“Although women have always been a driving force in science, they have persistently been underrepresented in technology commercialization and patenting,” Sexton said. “U-M Tech Transfer is driven to create an environment that welcomes a diverse group of innovators to engage in technology commercialization and entrepreneurship. By doing so, we are creating an innovation pipeline where we advance the broadest set of solutions to the challenges facing our planet.”