WPI’s Tech Commercialization Efforts Grow Under Todd Keiller’s Leadership
When Todd Keiller arrived at WPI in 2012 to lead the office that patents and licenses researchers’ inventions, the university had no active license agreements in place.
Now, as Keiller retires from his job as director of the Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC), WPI can count more than 60 active licenses and nearly two dozen start-up companies that have launched with unique technologies invented by faculty and students. Together, those businesses have hired more than 500 employees and raised more than $1 billion in capital for the development of the technology they licensed from the university.
“WPI has an ecosystem that encourages innovative thinking, ranging from the value creation mindset encouraged by the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship to the start-up incubation activities at The Business School’s Business Development Lab,” Keiller says. “It has been incredibly satisfying over the last 11 years to be part of that ecosystem and work with all the faculty and students who have come forward with ideas for inventions.”
WPI faculty and students have long turned their minds to inventing, and the technologies patented and licensed over the last decade range from medical devices to inventions focused on environmental sustainability:
- A lithium-ion battery recycling process invented by Yan Wang, William B. Smith Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, to address the glut of discarded batteries in the waste stream. Wang’s invention was licensed to a WPI start-up company in 2016 that became Ascend Elements, which has raised more than $1 billion in capital.
- A surgical robot that works in an MRI machine was invented by Gregory Fischer, professor in the Department of Robotics Engineering, and licensed in 2018 to AiM Medical Robotics, a company that Fischer co-founded.
- A commercial drying process invented by Professor Jamal Yagoobi in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering to turn food waste into feed for livestock was licensed in 2022 to Bright Feeds, a food waste recycler.
“The growth of the purpose-driven research done at WPI in the last decade has generated new technologies, and Todd has been instrumental in working with faculty and students to support the transfer of these technologies to start-ups and to well established companies,” says Bogdan Vernescu, vice provost for research. “Due to Todd and his team’s efforts in supporting faculty, we have significantly increased the impact of our researchers’ discoveries and our reputation as an innovative research university.”
“Technology commercialization” refers to the process of identifying, protecting, and marketing intellectual property, and it matters to universities because it enables innovations to reach the public while also earning money for institutions and inventors. At WPI, the process begins when a student, faculty member, staff member, or team of individuals files a “disclosure” with OTC that describes an invention. Over the past decade, OTC processed 559 disclosures.
After determining if an invention has market potential, OTC works with outside lawyers to protect the invention with a provisional patent for 12 months. OTC then markets the invention to existing businesses or assists with the start-up of a new company. Two newly adopted marketing methods that help with the process are an artificial intelligence tool that identifies companies to contact and a web-based platform that companies use to find academic partners.
Over the decade ending in 2022, a total of 148 patents were issued to WPI, or more than 70 percent of all patents issued to the university since 1980. OTC estimates that 40 percent of the patents actively marketed by WPI have been licensed.
“The goal of our office has never been to simply obtain a patent,” Keiller says. “The goal has been to have a patent that is licensed so that an invention is being developed into a product or process to solve a problem, while also earning fees and royalties for WPI and the inventors.”
To assist inventors, OTC runs programs that include the WPI Commercialization Fund for small investments in start-ups and a National Academy of Inventors chapter. Since 2018, Keiller has been the principal investigator on a $255,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that made WPI a regional site for I-Corps, an NSF entrepreneurial training program. More than 80 teams have completed I-Corps at WPI since then.
The university has outperformed its peers at turning research into licensed technology, according to benchmarks from the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), a group for university commercialization professionals. WPI spent about $38 million on research in 2021 and secured 14 new licenses, while peer universities spending a similar amount of money on research that year had secured an average of two new licenses.
In addition, AUTM gave its Better World Award, which honors technology transfer professionals who support a better world through the commercialization of academic research, to WPI in 2022 for the university’s commercialization of Wang’s invention.
“WPI has the tools to help students and faculty members learn about innovation and grow as entrepreneurs to benefit people, society, and the environment,” said Rosanna Garcia, Paul R. Beswick Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in The Business School. “OTC is part of a team that has demonstrated that WPI inventors can pursue their passions and succeed at turning ideas into impactful real-life products and businesses.”