In the 2002 movie “Minority Report,” actor Tom Cruise uses a clear display screen that can be read from either side. Back then, the technology was pure science fiction. But not anymore, thanks to John Wager, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State University.
Around the time “Minority Report” came out, Wager was developing a transparent transistor that eventually made clear display screens a reality. His success has earned him the nickname “godfather of novel electrical components” in the U.S., according to Brian Wall, director of Oregon State’s Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development.
Wager is just one researcher in the College of Engineering to achieve success through commercialization. The college sees its mission, in part, to create a culture of commercialization that provides opportunities for Oregon State research to make a real difference beyond the university.
At first, the world laughed at the idea of using zinc oxide — the same material you rub on your nose to avoid sunburn — to make a clear transistor. But no one laughed when OSU licensed the technology to Hewlett-Packard, which developed additional essential transistor innovations. The materials have become more sophisticated, and co-developed transparent transistor innovations have been sublicensed to an increasing number of companies that are launching products this year.
“The oxides we’re using have better electronic properties than the standard materials that have been used for the past 20 to 30 years,” Wager said. “It turns out that for three-dimensional TV applications, tablets, and some of the new applications, the materials developed are currently moving toward those displays,” Wager said. “That’s about a $100 billion a year industry.”
Over the past ten years, College of Engineering researchers have submitted nearly 250 invention disclosures to the Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development. In the same period of time, spin-out companies based on Oregon State research have emerged in the marketplace and now contribute to Oregon’s economy. These companies also provide research experience for current students and jobs for College of Engineering graduates.
“The college has been great at creating real-world opportunities for students. It makes them work-ready and provides greater employment opportunities," Wall said.
Ron Adams, executive associate vice president for research at Oregon State and former dean of the College of Engineering, ushered in a dynamic culture of commercialization within the college.
“During his service as the dean of the College of Engineering, Ron Adams fostered an era of impressive growth in the college, and forged strong relations with the high-tech sector in Oregon and elsewhere,” said Rick Spinrad, vice president for research at Oregon State. “In our approach towards new knowledge and solutions for the public well-being, innovation goes hand-in-hand with commercialization and technology transfer.”
A spin-out called Azuray Technologies is just one example of faculty-engaged commercialization. School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Head Terri Fiez and Professor Karti Mayaram created Azuray’s power electronics to harvest more energy from solar panels and provide longer lifetimes at a lower cost. “We looked at some of the issues in solar energy that needed to be addressed, and we realized our skills could be applied to solve them,” Fiez said. Azuray now focuses on reliable and efficient power optimizers for solar panels.
Another element to the college’s success in developing a commercialization portfolio is a strong relationship with Oregon-based signature research centers. The Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), for example, was designed to fund research projects that have the potential to become commercial products and thus avoid the so-called “valley of death,” where good ideas die for lack of investment capital.
ONAMI is currently funding several College of Engineering projects. Among them is Home Dialysis Plus, which provides portable dialysis equipment to patients. The technology makes it possible for millions of dialysis patients to undergo the procedure from their own homes, even while they sleep. Much of the technology was developed at the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute (MBI), a joint collaboration between Oregon State and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. MBI’s mission is to create and develop micro- and nanotechnologies and then usher them through the process of commercialization.
Ultimately, commercialization in the College of Engineering will bring even more recognition to the college and allow its researchers and students to contribute solutions to the world’s biggest engineering challenges. “Entrepreneurs, investors, and companies in Oregon and beyond are recognizing that Oregon State has an important role to play as an economic driver for the state,” Wall said.