Elizabeth Nelson; Dave Burbank
Elizabeth Nelson; Dave Burbank

Cornell Innovation Has Real-World Impact

by Jackie Swift

From its founding, Cornell University has emphasized real-world impact through cutting-edge innovation and breakthrough discoveries in its labs. In 2019, Reuters News Agency recognized the university’s strengths in these areas by placing Cornell in the top 10 of the world’s greatest academic innovators, defined as those educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies, and power new markets and industries. Cornell also ranked number one in research expenditures among New York State educational institutions, according to the National Science Foundation. In 2019, the university’s innovative spirit translated into 246 new inventions, 331 patents issued, 94 commercial licenses granted, and 15 new startup companies based on Cornell technology.

Research Results in Multiple Patents

But behind the statistics are the inventions that are changing the world. They come out of the labs of Cornell faculty like Justin J. Wilson, Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Wilson’s research focuses on the intersection between heavy metals and biology. “My lab is interested in exploring fundamental chemistry and cell biology,” he explains. “But our philosophy as we pursue our objectives is to keep an open and honest mind for where our research may be useful from a commercial or technological standpoint.”

The Wilson lab has had a series of breakthroughs that have resulted in multiple patents, one of which was licensed by a pharmaceutical company in 2019 for commercial development as an anticancer treatment. The licensed patent is for a chemical compound, known as a chelator, which specifically interacts and binds with metal ions. “We designed this technology to capture, contain, and deliver radioactive isotopes to treat cancer in vivo,” Wilson says.

Collaborating with John W. Babich, Radiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, Wilson and his colleagues tested their compound and further developed it by creating a radiopharmaceutical agent composed of the chelator, the radioactive atom actinium-225, and a biological targeting vector—such as a peptide—that binds with high specificity to receptors overexpressed on cancer cells. “The chelator is the glue that stably holds the actinium and the targeting vector together,” Wilson explains. The actinium-225 can then be delivered straight to cancer cells, bypassing other, healthy cells in the body.

“Our philosophy as we pursue our objectives is to keep an open and honest mind for where our research may be useful from a commercial or technological standpoint.”

Wilson has four other patents outstanding. One is for the same chelation technology optimized for a different application centered on using chelating agents to dissolve scale deposits in petroleum pipelines. In addition, he has two patents for anticancer compounds that contain the heavy transition metal rhenium. These compounds cause an accumulation of unfolded proteins in cancer cells that overburdens the cells and kills them. His last patent is for compounds that act as mitochondrial calcium uptake inhibitors. The compounds may be able to protect against organ cell death caused by the transitional shock of going from oxygen deficiency—for instance, during a heart attack—to normal oxygen levels upon recovery.

Designing a Pair of Eyes for the Microscope

Licensing a technology to a company for commercial development is the goal with a patent, and often a Cornell researcher’s involvement stops there. However, for David A. Muller, Applied and Engineering Physics, and Sol M. Gruner, Physics, the licensing of their groundbreaking electron microscope pixel array detector (EMPAD) was just another step in a decades-long development process.

“We’ve been working on the EMPAD for years,” Muller says. “It’s what you could call a pair of eyes for the microscope. They’re much more sensitive and can see a wider range of things than the detectors we had before. Now we can discern the details of very bright things and very dark things at the same time. We were able to improve the resolution of our transmission electron microscopes by a factor of three compared to performance before the EMPAD. We were even added to the Guinness World Records website in 2018 for having produced the highest-resolution image in the world by any method.”

The researchers received the Guinness World Records recognition when they imaged molybdenum disulfide, a two-dimensional material that comes in sheets that are one-atom thick. They twisted two sheets atop each other and measured the distance between atoms. “With the EMPAD, we were able to finely resolve two atoms that were 37 picometers apart—just far enough for us to see them,” Muller says. “That’s a much shorter distance than the bond lengths in materials. Since then, we’ve imaged magnetic fields with unprecedented sensitivity, and we’ve had success in imaging cells and large molecules with better efficiency than conventional microscopy.”

Helping to Scale Up for Commercial Production

Thermo Fischer Scientific (TFS), the largest seller of transmission electron microscopes in the world, licensed the EMPAD for commercial production in 2017, but Muller, Gruner, and their labs continued to work with TFS to scale up the technology for mass production, which began in 2019. “There’s a process you follow to get a commercial idea to market,” Muller says. “To make one prototype in the lab is one thing; to make 50 or 100 units a year of a customized, specialized, high-tech detector is something else entirely.”

Scientists in Gruner’s group had weekly meetings to guide people from TFS through the process, and once TFS had built their first EMPAD prototype, they sent it to the researchers at Cornell. “They asked us if this prototype still made sense,” Muller says. “We then troubleshot and attempted to catch problems. TFS was trying to bring down the cost of production, and we had to be careful that they didn’t take out something crucial because they didn’t realize it was important.”

Muller and Gruner are still involved with the EMPAD and are working on new ideas as well. “Our scientific interest in detectors has not stopped,” Muller says. “It’s a long-term project, and these are things we will continue to explore.”

Converting Research into a Startup

A big measure of Cornell’s real-world impact involves taking innovations from the lab to market via a startup founded specifically to commercialize a Cornell invention. That’s the route Zhiming Shen, PhD ’18 Computer Science, took when he opted to commercialize his graduate work on container architecture for cloud computing.

In 2019, Shen cofounded the software company Exotanium with his PhD advisers Hakim Weatherspoon and Robbert van Renesse, both Computer Science, who worked with him on the breakthrough research. Weatherspoon is the company’s chief executive officer and van Renesse is the chief scientist, with Shen taking the role of chief technical officer. Exotanium is currently a client of the Praxis Center for Venture Development, a Cornell incubator for startups.

In the cloud, software is deployed via containers, technology that packages the software together with all its code and other parts it needs to run reliably. However, containers have security and performance issues, Shen explains, so he and his colleagues created a new container architecture, called X-Containers, that addresses these problems.

Although he had a strong feeling that the X-Containers technology could have big potential in industry, Shen didn’t see a clear path to commercializing it until Weatherspoon suggested they submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research startup grant. “Our proposal was granted, and suddenly I had a real opportunity to convert my research into a startup and a product,” Shen says. “I had the chance to see if my work has a market, a real-world impact.”

Pivoting to Match Customer Needs

While creating their business and marketing plan, the Exotanium team talked to potential customers and learned that companies were more concerned about cloud cost than cloud security, Shen says. A big company with a retail website, for instance, will rent cloud bandwidth in anticipation of peak usage—say, Black Friday sales—even though, much of the rest of the time, the company website has much lower utilization, he explains. That oversubscription of cloud resources represents a big economic waste and convinced Shen and his cofounders to pivot their selling point from security to cost savings in the cloud.

“The cloud charges companies on how much resources they reserve, not how much they actually use,” Shen says. “If a company wants to reconfigure its workload in the cloud during a slow time, for instance, it has to shut down its application, reconfigure it, and then speed up again. Every reconfiguration takes time. That’s why companies reserve based on peak demand and just live with the cost. Many companies spend 50 percent of their revenue on the cloud.”

The Exotanium solution is a product that can dynamically configure a client company’s cloud resource without interrupting workload. But that’s just the beginning of what Shen hopes to offer customers. “Longer term, we want to become a service provider for the cloud,” he says. “A kind of cloud broker. If a company wants to buy a cloud resource, they will come to us first and run on our hosting platform. Then we’ll help them optimize their cloud utilization so they can use the cloud in a better way going forward.”