Innovation Day Celebrates Entrepreneurship on Campus

The event is nearly 10 years old, and the honors have become highly competitive.
Feb. 29, 2012
Bruce Wright
Bruce Wright
UA Science and Technology Park
UA Science and Technology Park

The University of Arizona will celebrate faculty and student innovation and entrepreneurship at the ninth annual Innovation Day next week.

Many of the ideas and technologies forged at the UA have found their way into the marketplace, either as products, the technologies behind them or the companies that were created to move them out of the labs and into production.

The results span the business world with everything from new cancer drugs and other medical therapies to fiber-optic lasers and improved digital images for the movies.

This year's event will take place March 6 at the Student Union Memorial Center. Research Corp. is sponsoring it.

Some of the past honorees include Regents' Professor of Management Information Systems Jay Nunamaker Jr., the founder and chairman of Ventana, maker of electronic collaboration and meeting systems; James Wyant, the former dean of the College of Optical Sciences and head of Tucson-based optics company WYKO; and Hsinchun Chen, a management information systems professor in the Eller College of Management whose databases help law enforcement and intelligence communities monitor criminal activity.

Other winners include Evan Unger, a radiologist whose technologies have been used by a number of companies for clinical diagnostic tests that affect lives and health care not just in Arizona but worldwide; Laurence Hurley, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology and founder of cancer drug specialists Cylene Pharmaceuticals; and Nasser Peyghambarian, a professor in optical sciences and founder of the laser optics company NP Photonics.

As a research institution, the UA has been a growing presence for several decades. It was among the founding members of the Carnegie Foundation's list of Research I universities in 1976. Starting in the mid-1980s, the UA also began to acknowledge the school's best researchers through the Regents' Professor awards. But until a decade ago, there was no recognition for moving new knowledge out of the laboratory and into the larger world.

"It started almost 10 years ago when we began to talk about ways to encourage students and faculty to be more entrepreneurial in taking their inventions and discoveries to the marketplace," said Bruce Wright, the associate vice president in charge of the UA's research parks. Under Wright, the UA Science and Technology Park has incubated several successful companies based in University research.

"What we got back from faculty was that there was no recognition or reward or incentive for them to be entrepreneurial. So, short of making changes in promotion and tenure policy, our thought was to begin to identify and publicly recognize those with breakthrough projects that have led to their technology being commercialized," Wright said.

The Technology Innovation Award given at Innovation Day has become highly competitive and includes a $10,000 stipend that the winner can direct toward research. Each year, a committee headed by Wright and Senior Vice President for Research Leslie Tolbert puts out a call for nominations for both students and faculty. Faculty nominees have either created new companies based on their research or have marketed technology used by other firms.

Wright said the committee typically sorts through 15 to 20 faculty nominations each year.

Innovation Day also recognizes a second group of faculty members, those who have not yet made the transition from research to commercialization or licensing but are working in technology fields where that potential exists.

"In the last two or three years we've held a session called UA at the Leading Edge, where researchers present their technologies. It's become one of the most popular and most attended parts of Innovation Day, in particular because people in the community, venture capitalists and investors can see what's happening," Wright said.

This year's session includes:

  • Eric Betterton, an atmospheric chemist, and head of the atmospheric sciences department, who studies windborne dust from natural and man-made sources. His research is crucial for dust forecasting technologies for health and traffic advisories.
  • Leslie Gunatilaka, an arid lands researcher at the Institute of the Environment who explores novel compounds and their potential medicinal properties from plants in arid parts of Asia, South America and the Sonoran Desert.
  • Larry Head, head of the systems and industrial engineering department, whose research focuses on priority-based traffic signals and how they can be used to aid emergency first responders.
  • Sharon Megdal, the director of the UA Water Resources Research Center, a unit that concentrates on state and regional water resources management and policy, including environmental water requirements, aquifer recharge and assessment and planning to meet future water needs in the region.
  • James Schwiegerling, a professor of optical sciences who is developing a design for an artificial lens that can be used to replace the lenses in human eyes such as in cataract surgery.

Wright said Innovation Day also recognizes administrators who help foster tech transfer efforts. Those have included former UA Presidents Emeriti Henry Koffler and John P. Schaefer, former research Vice Presidents Michael Cusanovich and Richard Powell, Jim Fountain, the former director of the Arizona Center for Innovation who helped create Innovation Day, and others.

Another part of the event is for students.

"We've partnered with the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program in the Eller College of Management to showcase graduate and undergraduate students," Wright said. "They bring their business plans forward and several have translated those into company startups, including some that have been incubated out of the UA tech park."

Last year, Jared Moore, a doctoral student in optical sciences, won a $1,000 prize for his design and construction of an innovative CT scanner capable of magnifying and adjusting the field of view on images of the body.

More information about Innovation Day is online.