Refining research for mass appeal

It’s the ultimate goal for many faculty members to watch their months or years of research culminate in a tangible, marketable product.

Commercialization has the power to legitimize a research concept and demonstrate its applicability to prospective investors and clients. TU strives to improve society as a whole through its academic discoveries. Commercialization supports the university’s entrepreneurial climate and goals.

“Commercializing a product brings TU a lot of visibility in academic circles in the state and around the world,” said Bill Lawson, director of technology commercialization. “As products roll out with TU patents, we receive credit for providing economic development.”

Under the leadership of President Steadman Upham, TU has commercialized three products, and a fourth is in development. All patent recommendations undergo a thorough review and approval process by the president’s office to determine their financial feasibility.

TU’s most recognized project to date was introduced by Jeremy Daily, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, who launched Synercon Technologies LLC in 2013. The company provides a line of equipment and software for use in heavy vehicle crash investigations and serves a niche market for state highway patrol organizations nationwide. Products include the Forensic Link Adapter, a “black box” for heavy duty trucks programmed to download engine control module data after a crash.

“We ultimately help people who have suffered tragedy by providing clear information on what happened,” Daily said.

His interest in crash forensics welcomed mechanical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering students to assist with the research. In true grassroots fashion, the prototypes were built in Daily’s home garage.

Synercon Technologies
Professor Jeremy Daily (right) with Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lieutenant James Loftis

“I don’t know how I would’ve done it without TU’s help,” he said. “Commercializing a product is drastically  different from typical academic research. You realize how your efforts really matter and see how you can actually use the product.”

Juggling the responsibilities of a start-up company, research and teaching is a challenge, but Daily says it’s important to share the experience with his students. Two of his former students are employed by Synercon today.

“I now understand the business side of the operation,” he said. “We’re able to talk with clients about cyber security issues we study too, and there’s always potential for continued research.”

Students from the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences and the Collins College of Business often collaborate for research and product design to compete in the Oklahoma Governor’s Cup competition. Lawson says the annual event encourages interdisciplinary research and promotes many of TU’s commercial prospects. TU teams consistently earn top honors.

“The student body has quite a thirst for this kind of entrepreneurship,” he said. “It’s exciting when successful academic endeavors can be made available to society in general.”

On the horizon, TU is partnering with Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, to commercialize research that began two years ago in a TU chemistry laboratory. As participants in the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge, senior Austin Evans and alumnus Michael Crockett (BS ’15) worked alongside Justin Chalker, then a TU assistant professor of chemistry, to develop a polymer that removes mercury from water and soil. Nontoxic and inexpensive to make, the compound is made entirely of waste generated by the petroleum and citrus industries. Chalker, who is now a professor at Flinders University, said the compound appeals to a global market, targeting the serious environmental problem of mercury pollution.

“We’re currently in discussions with fine chemical companies, geoscience firms, mining agencies and remediation companies,” he said. “I’m most interested in seeing our discovery make a positive impact on the environment.”

research
Professor Justin Chalker (right) continues the mercury research at Flinders University.

Chalker said developing the research into a field-ready product will generate more impact than it would as a mere academic exercise. Strategic industrial partnerships will lead to additional support for lab research, science discoveries and university contributions.

“Both institutions will share revenue generated from the technology’s commercial license agreements,” he said.

The partnership between TU and Flinders University ensures access to a global network for Chalker and his research team. Development for commercial sale is still in the preliminary stages but has elevated TU’s international reputation.

“We’ve already talked to 17 different entities from four different continents,” Lawson said. “It’s some of the most exciting work I’ve gotten to do.”