• Video: Dr. Bob Kizer demonstrates a prototype of his new nasogastric tube by intubating himself.
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Some physicians and scientists have inventive minds, but that doesn't mean they know how to market an invention.
Many universities over the past 15 years or more have created offices designed to help professors market their findings, making inventions useful to the public and profitable to the inventor and university. Those offices do patent research and try to match innovative professors, physicians and researchers with investors and companies.
The effort appears to be paying off for the University of Nebraska, which was 20th nationally in license income in the most recent ranking, for 2011.
Dr. James Linder, the NU president's senior associate for innovation, said NU professors who receive research money from such entities as the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture want to see their efforts bear fruit in therapies and discoveries that help people.
He said that in the ongoing search for the NU Medical Center's chancellor, it's a given that the search committee values research, innovation and technology transfer. The three remaining finalists aren't experienced in moving innovation to the marketplace, Linder said, but they know it's essential. A leading academic medical center needs to be good at it, he said.
“We view it as a core function of UNMC,” said Linder, who leads the search committee.
Creighton University this week held a gathering in a hotel meeting room where three of its scientists and doctors showcased their innovations. The NU Medical Center will hold an open house Oct. 7 at the Durham Research Center so about eight startup companies can show off discoveries ranging from new research instruments to novel surgical tools.
Dr. Bob Kizer, an Alegent Creighton Health gastroenterologist, stepped to the podium of the Creighton event to describe his innovation. He intends to produce nasogastric tubes that are less painful when placed through a patient's nose, down the throat and into the stomach. Nasogastric tubes, used to provide nutrition and medication to patients, or to suction out poison or gastric fluids, can cause patients to gag and vomit as the thin tube threads through the nose and throat.
“These are used in the hospital all day, every day,” Kizer told the audience of 30 attorneys, professors and others. Sometimes the tube is misdirected toward a lung. Typically, X-rays must be taken to make sure the tube is placed correctly. It's a laborious, time-consuming, uncomfortable process, he said.
Kizer's innovation involves threading the tube through a small sheath, which would protect the patient from the sensation of the spaghetti-sized tube sliding through the nose and into the throat, then inflating a tiny balloon at the end of the tube. The patient would more naturally swallow that water-filled balloon, automatically carrying the tube into the stomach.
He said his invention would reduce costs and minimize patient discomfort. With the endorsement of Creighton's intellectual resources management office, Kizer has started a firm, called Spark Instruments, to produce and market the device. The prototype is in production, supported by a $100,000 state grant.
“This isn't my only idea,” he said later. “I don't think it's my biggest idea.”
Representatives of Omaha's Streck Inc. listened. “There's a lot of very good innovation going on at universities,” Streck's Joel TerMaat said. Streck, a laboratory equipment manufacturer, acquired a license this year from Creighton to commercialize a kit that would make it easier for hospitals to check for certain antibiotic-resistant bacteria from blood or urine tests. The product stems from the research of Creighton scientist Nancy Hanson.
At the UNMC open house, Anna Brynskikh Boyum will talk about the invention she developed with Tom Frederick, a UNL graduate student in engineering. As a UNMC researcher, Boyum found inadequate the tools used to keep thin, frozen tissue samples from curling or tearing. Technicians use small paint brushes they buy from art stores and other tools.
Boyum and Frederick created a handle with interchangeable attachments that they hope will make the work easier and more precise. They have created a startup company, Elegant Instruments, and intend to sell the device online. They have other ideas, too.
“We aim to bring as many useful products to end users as possible,” she said.
Michael Dixon, head of UNeMed, which works with UNMC and UNO professors and students to commercialize innovations, said universities became bigger forces in the marketplace with the federal Bayh-Dole Act. The 1980 law enabled universities to own the inventions they made with research funds from the NIH, the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies. Dixon said UNeMed was created in the early 1990s, with its activity growing over the past 10 years.
Jane Garrity, senior technology agent for UNL's NUtech Ventures, said professors with innovations need help from people skilled in raising money or with contacts with the right companies to move a concept forward. NUtech also assists University of Nebraska at Kearney innovators and some at UNO.
University license revenue, generated from royalties and upfront fees when a company buys the license, is shared by the university and the inventor.
Lee Taylor, director of Creighton's intellectual resources management office, said only about one in 10 innovations actually is licensed by a company or results in a startup. “It is an uphill battle,” he said. “It is long odds.”
Creighton's technology transfer results are dwarfed by NU's, in part because NU is a much bigger organization. Taylor, who took over the Creighton job in April, declined to say how much license revenue Creighton is generating.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that NU's $16.8 million in license income ranked it 20th in the 2010-11 academic year, the latest year for which the ranking was available. An NU spokeswoman said the university ranked 63rd in 2006-07, generating $2.45 million.
Linder said NU generated about $12 million in 2012-13, down somewhat from 2010-11. Nevertheless, he said, there's no question that the university's scientists have undergone a gradual shift in approach. Producing devices and therapies of value to the public is a priority for many of them, he said.
Several hours after the Creighton meeting, Kizer demonstrated an early version of his innovation. He put the nasogastric tube down his own nasal passage. He has tried it out on himself about a dozen times as he's improved the device, he said. If he isn't willing to try it on himself, he said, he shouldn't expect patients to submit to it. The process appeared to be delicate but not agonizing.
“It felt wonderful,” he said facetiously.
He said he would like his Spark Instruments startup firm to eventually have the staff required to support the marketing of other physicians' inventions. They, like he, have busy practices and little time to develop and market innovations.
“I like being a doctor,” Kizer said. “I don't want to be a manufacturer.”