UW’s innovation mindset: Turning research into better living

In the 1970s, UW nursing professor Kathryn Barnard discovered that premature babies gained weight and developed faster if they were rocked and could hear the sound of a heartbeat. The findings, which ran counter to the convention of protecting preemies from everything, including sound and motion, revolutionized neonatal care and led to the creation of the Isolette incubator. Barnard’s innovative line of inquiry and findings changed how parents and nurses approach babies’ early sensory stimulation. She showed that nurturing and contact are vital for these tiny beings to develop and thrive.

In higher education the notion of “innovation” is more often tied with spinouts, tech transfer and commercialization agreements. That’s not how the UW is defining it, says Vikram Jandhyala, UW’s first Vice Provost for Innovation. Beyond the widget, app, or technology that could be turned for a profit, innovation is a mindset, he says. “It’s something for the benefit of human kind. It’s how we can actually leverage the best of the university’s creativity to impact the real world outside of campus.”

One of the most significant UW innovations took place in the 1980s when biology professor Benjamin Hall discovered a method for using yeast to produce engineered proteins. He and researcher Gustav Ammerer used that method to help develop a vaccine for Hepatitis B. It was the world’s first genetically engineered vaccine against a human disease. Licensed to the UW, the technology they created brought in more than $300 million in revenue. That money has allowed the University to offer early stage grants to researchers and recent graduates to create businesses out of their own research.

Over his career at the UW, Akira Ishimaru, ’58, pioneered wave propagation. His work, which explains how waves like light or sound move through oceans and atmospheres, has led to the creation of tools like ultrasound, laser surgery and instruments for astronomy.

And Linda Buck, ’75, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, clarified how the olfactory system works from smell to nose to brain, and followed the process to find connections to conscious thoughts and emotions.

Greater Seattle is having a huge innovation boom, and my job is to figure out how can we connect to that.

Vikram Jandhyala, UW vice provost for innovation

In the 1950s, Wayne Quinton, ’59, led the UW’s medical instrument shop, creating more than 40 medical devices like the Scribner shunt, which made outpatient kidney dialysis a reality. He also built the Bruce Treadmill, which was first used in medical settings to diagnose cardiac disease and later in homes for personal health. Following in the footsteps of Hall, Quinton, Ishimaru and Buck, today’s UW researchers and their students are focusing on problems across disciplines including human health, criminal rehabilitation, the environment and education.

What Barnard understood with premature babies, Jandhyala now sees with innovative ideas and fledgling efforts. Whether it’s to launch a company, save more lives, change a community, or protect the environment, all these efforts need to be nurtured in order to thrive.

“There are so many amazing ideas here at the UW,” says Jandhyala. “Add to that the fact that greater Seattle is having a huge innovation boom, and my job is to figure out how can we connect to that.”

The new vice provost looks down the coast to learn a few lessons. Stanford is the most technologically innovative university, says Jandhyala. “But here in Seattle, we’re different and broader. We have the opportunity and potential to be such a leader, but we can also be inclusive. It’s not just high tech. It’s social equity, the environment, education, human health, and so many other things. We here in Washington can be more.”

—Hannelore Sudermann

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