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Three scientists from UO and OSU work to raise Oregon's tech profile

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Thursday, March 01, 2007
3Amigos0307.jpg The “three amigos” in the Kelley Engineering Center at Oregon State University. From left: Mas Subramanian, Milton Harris professor of materials science at OSU; Doug Keszler, OSU professor of inorganic chemistry; and David Johnson, U of O professor of chemistry.

Photo by Jon Meyers.

The power of three

A trio of world-class scientists embodies the strength of collaboration and forges stronger links to the business world.

By Christina Williams

When Mas Subramanian, Dave Johnson and Doug Keszler get together, they’re as likely to talk about techniques for new ways to manipulate unfathomably tiny nanomaterials as they are to chat about their families or the weather.

This trio of solid-state chemists is such a clubby bunch that it even has a catchy nickname: the three amigos.

But they also have impressive credentials, international reputations and research that bring in millions in grant money and look sexy to investors who see business potential in their inventions. And like the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) that claims them as member researchers, they’re an example of why it’s imperative that Oregon universities work together to raise the national profile of the state’s universities and the research that’s done here.

Even though Johnson’s office is on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene and Subramanian and Keszler hail from Oregon State, they’re so chummy — Keszler and Johnson even co-manage an internship program for graduate students from both universities — you’d never know they didn’t wear the same school colors.

And from the perspective of people like David Chen, ubiquitous economic development strategist, regular gadfly to academia and chairman of ONAMI, they’re definitely on the same team: Oregon’s.

“These guys are not up-and-coming,” says Chen, partner with OVP Venture Partners and chairman of the Oregon Innovation Council. “They are at the top of their games.”

In the world of academic research, seniority counts for a lot. The pecking order for research prowess is measured largely by the grants pulled down — it’s hard to invent without money and research grants from organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are the source of much of that money. And, Chen says, the boards behind those groups are still old-boy networks.

“That’s what we’re so damn excited about with Mas,” Chen says. “We’ve been lacking seniority with that peer-review system, the establishment.”

When Mas Subramanian, an affable, quick-talking 50-year-old scientist, joined the staff at Oregon State last May, it was an instant boost in stature for both the school and the state.

Subramanian came from the labs of Wilm-ington, Del.-based DuPont, where he worked for 21 years, putting his name on 51 patents for the company. He’s known worldwide for his work in high-temperature superconductivity, thermoelectrics and developing greener chemical processes.

He’s not yet supervising students or teaching classes, but already Subramanian has the look of a harried professor. He’s spending long hours writing grant proposals, overseeing the outfitting of a new lab and setting up the OSU Materials Institute, which will coordinate research efforts between departments on campus in areas such as electronics and biomaterials. A formal institute, he says, will be more visible to the outside world.

OSU is counting on Subramanian both to raise the school’s profile and bring in more research money.

U of O’s Dave Johnson, on the other hand, lobbied heavily for Subramanian to pick Oregon among his many academic job possibilities for one main reason: He’s counting on Subramanian to help make Oregon the best place in the world to study materials chemistry.

THE WORLD OF TOP-FLIGHT SOLID-STATE CHEMISTS is a cozy one. A little more than 20 years ago, Johnson was on the hiring committee for DuPont when they brought on a newly minted Ph.D. named Mas Subramanian. Later, Johnson (whose native Oregonian wife, a fellow scientist, was pushing for a move back home) applied for a job at Oregon State — the one OSU hired Doug Keszler to fill. Johnson landed at U of O in 1986. In the last 20 years, Keszler and Johnson have each brought in $11 million to their respective institutions in the form of research grants.

“When Doug said ‘jump’ to get Mas to come here, I said ‘how high?’” Johnson says. “It didn’t matter that he was coming to OSU.”

Johnson, who is 50, is a vocal proponent of collaboration between the universities. “We get so little money from the state of Oregon,” he says. “Why fight over the crumbs?”

Collaboration is the whole idea behind something Johnson founded called the Center for Advanced Materials Characterization in Oregon (CAMCOR for short), a kind of high-tech extension service. Through CAMCOR, Johnson makes sure the nano equipment the university has is available to any researcher willing to make the drive to use it — that includes both academicians and scientists from Oregon companies.

Visit Johnson in Eugene and he’ll walk you over to a chain link fence to look at a construction excavation that’s just a stone’s throw from his office and tell you how engineers used an accelerometer to measure vibrations to find the most stable ground on campus.

What’s now a 19-foot hole in the ground soon will be the new subterranean home for an ONAMI research center including semiconductor, photolithography, nanofabrication and bio-optics labs along with the 20 high-tech instruments and ultra high-powered microscopes belonging to CAMCOR. The new facility (named the Lorry I. Lokey Laboratories after the founder of Business Wire who gave generously to the project) will also include space for companies to use on an ongoing basis.

Johnson compares the new labs, which should be up and running by the end of the year, to the Duck football team’s storied $3 million locker room — it’s one more tool the university can use to recruit students and faculty as well as forge closer and more fruitful relationships with industry partners.

For Johnson and his colleagues over at OSU, ONAMI is an important connector between the business world and their own. “It’s got everyone’s attention,” Johnson says.

Subramanian sees ONAMI as a resource, a depository of expertise and a conduit between academic discovery and the marketplace. “It’s not easy to penetrate industry,” Subramanian says. “It may look easy, but it’s not.”

BUT ACADEMIA AND INDUSTRY ARE GROWING ever closer. both in Oregon and across the country, as their symbiotic relationship becomes more and more important.

The universities need businesses to employ their graduates, give their students real-world experience and act as partner — and sometimes rich-uncle backer — in research pursuits. As for industry, businesses large and small are more and more often treating university labs as their own R&D facilities.

It’s a shift that Subramanian witnessed firsthand during the second half of his tenure at DuPont as he watched the company look outward more and more for its research advances, getting intellectual property by either acquiring startups or licensing technology from the universities.

“The great industry research labs are disappearing,” he says. “More and more the attitude is: What can the university do for us?”

Coming from the industry side of the equation, Subramanian is getting used to the somewhat sluggish pace of academia just as he is small-town life in Corvallis and overly careful Oregon drivers.

While he speaks with relish about the new opportunity he has to use academic freedom to pursue whatever research most interests him, Subramanian won’t ever stop thinking about the market for his inventions. “Research must focus on societal needs,” he says. “That’s the only way you can tell the world that research has value.”

He doesn’t have to convince Doug Keszler of that. Almost boyish and very unassuming, you wouldn’t peg 49-year-old Keszler as the cunning entrepreneur that he is. His side company, Brilliant Technologies, has developed a phosphor security tag that offshore manufacturers of removable disks use to verify their products.

“I’ve never had to advertise,” says Keszler. “I’ve formed relationships through professional conferences and organizations contacting me through my website. We’re in the security phosphor business, so I’ve wanted to maintain a low profile.”

He also acts as an adviser to Deep Photonics, a Corvallis company that makes lasers for the semiconductor industry using a material that Keszler helped develop. He says there are more startups to come.

Keszler has seen some improvement in the university’s handling of intellectual property. He describes the first patent he filed with the school in 1994, for a material called cesium lithium borate.

“In ’94 this place wasn’t too swift in technology transfer,” Keszler says. “They sat on it for a year.” Meanwhile a group in Japan filed a similar patent, got it, and OSU lost out. “It would have been pretty valuable for the university.”

Technology transfer — the process of licensing university technology to another company or spinning it out as a startup — is an area where the dance between industry and academia can become clumsy.

Johnson speaks in glowing terms about the U of O tech transfer office, through which he’s been involved with three patents and ongoing discussions, but he says the laws in Oregon hamstring the university’s ability to partner with private industry because of questions about who owns the intellectual property of new discoveries.

One of the initiatives being pushed in the Legislature by the governor-appointed Oregon Innovation Council would change the laws to create a more efficient tech-transfer process.

Skip Rung, director of ONAMI, says his organization keeps out of intellectual property matters but says the streamlining of tech transfer is an important initiative for Oregon to truly take advantage of the collective expertise of scientists like the three amigos.

“They’re as smart as anyone, but they run into barriers,” Rung says. ONAMI’s raison d’etre is to shrink those barriers down to a more manageable size and raise the profile of superstar research — the work of Keszler and Johnson and the reputation of Subramanian is arguably better known outside of Oregon than it is here.

It’s time for a change. Says Rung: “The idea of research being all about knowledge and being disinterested in business is outdated.”

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