Innovation at Work: Culture of collaboration fosters big ideas, new technologies, impactful solutions

Two researchers silhouetted in the virtual reality lab

Iowa State has a strong history of innovation and developing new products to help grow the economy and benefit our daily lives. Photo courtesy of Office of the Vice President for Research and McClanahan Studio. (Larger image

By Angie Hunt, News Service

AMES, Iowa – The initial results look promising for a commercial animal vaccine that Iowa State University researchers with the Nanovaccine Institute have formulated using nanoparticles.

The research project is part of a collaborative partnership with Merck Animal Health announced in February 2022. Based on progress to this point, the newly formulated vaccine could provide significant animal health and economic benefits.

Vaccine development was a natural starting point for the newly formed partnership, but it quickly expanded to other areas of campus and grew from five to 14 projects in the first year, said Mike Roof, chief technology officer for Iowa State’s vaccines and immunotherapeutics research and innovation platform, which supports the state’s biosciences-based economic growth initiative.

“It’s been a huge success and a model that we’re working to replicate with other companies,” Roof said. “I work with faculty across campus on a daily basis to learn about their research and identify companies that would be interested in their work. I play the role of 'technology concierge.'”

In this role, Roof also has helped facilitate an engineering project that launched a startup to develop tools and processes to deliver products differently. The ISU College of Veterinary Medicine is working with Merck Animal Health on new and emerging disease surveillance. And the company is exploring projects with the library and the Ivy College of Business.  

Roof credits the strong collaboration and commitment across campus – from the Vice President for Research to the ISU Research Park to the Office of Innovation Commercialization – for the success of the partnership.

“Since I’ve been on campus, the answer to everything has always been, ‘Yes, we can do that,’” Roof said. “When you pull people together, which is easy to do at Iowa State, it’s a powerful force. Everybody is willing and eager to work toward the larger good.”

History of innovation

Iowa State has a long history, dating back to 1871 (see timeline), of translating research into new products and technologies that help grow Iowa’s economy and benefit our daily lives. Iowa State is where George Washington Carver, Iowa State’s first Black student and faculty member, got his start. Carver went on to create hundreds of uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes, from plastics to laundry soap to diesel fuel.

Part of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer.

Part of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives.

In 1937, the world’s first electronic computer was built at Iowa State. Lead-free solder was patented in 1996 and stands as the university’s highest-grossing patent – totaling $60 million in royalty income before the patent expired in 2013. Seedless watermelons, numerous animal vaccines and high-tech, digital agriculture sensors are also on the list of notable Iowa State discoveries and inventions.

“At Iowa State we strive to be the trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions,” said Peter Dorhout, ISU’s vice president for research. “We demonstrate this through our research, industry partnerships and the creation of new technologies.”

Bringing researchers together to solve problems

To foster collaboration among researchers from different disciplines, Iowa State launched a series of Research and Innovation Roundtables. Dorhout says the roundtables are designed to bring faculty together to discuss and think about big ideas and big problems with the goal of “sparking something new and creating something that wouldn’t exist independently.”

Nearly 60 faculty participated in the first roundtable last November, which focused on research opportunities ranging from green energy production to climate-smart community design and regenerative agriculture. Three proposals that emerged from that session were selected to receive seed funding through a jump-start initiative for Iowa State’s Strategic Plan. The funding will allow teams to test their ideas and see if they are viable (read more about the proposals).

Linda Shenk, an associate professor of English who is leading one of the research initiatives focused on storytelling, says many members of the team had never met before attending the research roundtable.

“This opportunity has allowed us to build a team of researchers who bring different types of storytelling—from the humanities, from economics, from geophysical simulation—all into conversation to support some of the most potentially powerful but underrepresented stakeholders in Midwest agriculture,” Shenk said.

Future roundtables will focus on global challenges and topics that complement Iowa State’s research strengths. Dorhout says there is a ripple effect to supporting faculty exploration that leads to student research opportunities and potential solutions that benefit society.

“Through our partnerships and collaborations, we’ve really created an ecosystem here at Iowa State that helps researchers and students learn the language of other disciplines and come at a problem with a different perspective than they had before,” Dorhout said. “This allows us to translate research into products for customers and economic prosperity for the state. Most importantly, we build trust with our external stakeholders and partners.”  

Listen and make it happen

Ph.D. student Raquel Rainier places circuit boards into a machine that will implant upon them a graphene material by laser in Sukup Hall.

Iowa State has built an ecoystem of support to help researchers commercialize their work. Photo by Christopher Gannon, Iowa State University. (Larger image)

Iowa State consistently ranks among the top 100 universities worldwide granted U.S. patents. The process of disclosure, applying for and receiving a patent is complex, which is why the Office of Innovation Commercialization offers support, protection and commercialization efforts for innovations and intellectual property resulting from Iowa State research.

Craig Forney, assistant director for business development with the ISU Research Foundation, and Lynne Mumm, assistant director for industry contracts in the Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer, say it’s rare for universities to bring these teams together under one office, but the benefits of this arrangement at Iowa State have been tremendous (see sidebar). It allows the teams to listen to the needs of researchers and industry and then find a solution to make it happen.

“We start by listening and being flexible with our approach,” Mumm said. “Once we determine what a researcher wants to accomplish or the problem industry wants to fix, we can customize the solution to fit their needs.”

Expertise compliments faculty research

Mumm’s team works with industry partners and commodity groups on innovative solutions and product development. For fiscal year 2022, the team negotiated over 400 industry sponsored research contracts equaling nearly $32 million and more than 800 agreements supporting industry partnerships. These agreements range from confidentiality to material transfer to field trials to large-scale research projects to test the viability of a product or technology.

Forney’s team manages intellectual property and inventions at Iowa State. For fiscal year 2022, Iowa State filed 95 new patent applications, with 37 U.S. patents and 69 worldwide patents issued. To best support faculty through this process, Forney says it is vital for the team to understand the technologies brought to them for a potential patent.

“We all come from STEM fields and often have industry experience in product development,” Forney said. “Having that experience gives us an understanding of what’s required to take an early stage technology and get it to the point of being commercialized, and that understanding is an extremely valuable asset.”

Patience also is an asset. Forney says it often takes several months or years to advance a technology from concept to market, depending on its readiness level. A technology generally needs to be at level four or five (on a scale of one to nine) for a commercial entity to express interest.

Is it viable? What about a startup?

Most technologies come to the Office of Innovation Commercialization at a level one or two and require additional investment to address known limitations or demonstrate scalability. As part of the ecosystem to support innovation and entrepreneurship, Iowa State has a variety of programs and funding opportunities to help researchers advance their technology to the next level, whether that be the licensing and patent process or launching a startup.

Shan Jiang in a lab holding a small vial with a dark liquid

The ISU Startup Factory helped Shan Jiang find a market for the research he developed in the lab. Photo courtesy of Shan Jiang. (Larger image)

The ISU Startup Factory is one example. The semester-long incubator program is designed to help faculty entrepreneurs apply their research, solve problems and move from “tech-speak” to “business-speak.” The program helped set Shan Jiang, associate professor of materials science and engineering, on a path to commercialize his technology to produce more environmentally-friendly wood stains (read the story).

In 2017, Iowa State became a site for the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program to support faculty exploring new business ventures. Since then, the program has generated $3.4 million in commercialization grants and investment funding and helped launch 13 new companies. In 2022, CYVAX opened in the ISU Research Park in response to demand from researchers and startups for flexible manufacturing space for scale-up and clinical trials.

Iowa State also offers grants and internal funding opportunities, such as the Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed and Initiative (PIRI) aimed at growing existing collaborations into large-scale initiatives.

The impact of Innovation at Work

As highlighted throughout this series of stories, Iowa State researchers are making an impact by developing solutions to challenges on a local and global level. Trusted solutions that would not be possible without the culture of innovation and collaboration fostered at Iowa State.

Behind the stories are numbers – from patents filed and issued to sales from licensed products to external research funding – that further illustrate the impact. Within the stories are people – faculty, staff, and student collaborators – who provide the creative horsepower for ISU.

What makes innovation work at Iowa State? Roof, Iowa State’s chief technology officer or “concierge” for vaccines, again points to the strong alignment and commitment across campus that makes new patents, inventions and discoveries possible.

“When you connect campus with the research park and state resources – we have the whole package,” Roof said. “We’re unified and willing to work together. Everyone pulls in the same direction.”