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Charleston Business

S.C.'s SmartState Program gives university researches the funds they need to innovate

Mar 18, 2019 11:08AM
By Dan McCue

It was a moment of inspired governance: A clutch of lawmakers coming together, identifying a challenge and then letting imaginations fly. Established by the General Assembly in 2002, South Carolina’s SmartState Program has guided research and innovation here ever since.

The legislation authorized the state’s three public research institutions—Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina, and the University of South Carolina—to use education lottery funds to create Centers of Economic Excellence focused on specific industry sectors. These sectors include the biomedical field; advanced materials and nanotechnology; pharmaceutical; energy and alternative fuels; information science; and automotive and transportation.

Each of the schools was awarded $2 million to $5 million in lottery funds, which had to be matched on a dollar-for-dollar basis with funds from industry, to create endowed chairs in each research area. According to the most recent annual report for the program, covering the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the initiative has stimulated $2.4 billion in economic activity, and led directly and indirectly to the creation of more than 12,000 jobs.

“When I moved to South Carolina 13 years ago, I was really impressed by how much the state had already diversified its economy as a result of the program,” says Laine Mears, the BMW SmartState chair in automotive manufacturing at Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this state is really well positioned to survive in times of big swings in the economy,” Mears says. “Little did I know, of course, that the 2008 [global economic crisis] was just around the corner, but my initial impression proved correct. The state’s economy is diversified in just the way you’d want your personal or business portfolio to be ... and the research supported through the SmartState program is a big part of that.”

Like the more than 50 other chairs the public-private partnership has endowed, Mears focuses on a specific line of research, namely how to help companies adapt smart manufacturing or Industry 4.0 practices into their operations.

“Today, manufacturing equipment is far more adaptive and flexible than what we had in the past, and we’re incorporating all kinds of new materials into the things we make,” he explains. “The area I work in looks at how to deal with the different kinds of hybrid manufacturing processes that are emerging and how to control them intelligently.”

Michael Rusnak, executive director of the MUSC Foundation for Research Development, said the program is a testament to the state recognizing that “innovation is paramount.”

“We’re seeing tremendous changes today in how medicine is being practiced, how it is being taught, and how those two things come together,” he says. “These are huge challenges for the medical community, and the reality is you’re not going to survive these challenges without going forward.”

SmartState and the creation of the endowed chairs occurred against a changing landscape in research funding. Over the past decade, the federal government—long the world leader in research funding—has been reassessing its priorities. Where money for research once flowed freely through the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, institutions like MUSC have to increasingly look to the private sector for partnerships.

“It used to be the federal government funded your research and said, ‘Do a good job and publish your findings.’ And a lot of good science was done that way, leading to important breakthroughs,” Rusnak says. 

With the federal government getting out of the business of funding research for research’s sake, researchers like those at MUSC increasingly have to ask themselves, “How do you take the fantastic findings they are uncovering and translate them to uses outside the university?”

“Obviously, one way that you can move forward is to innovate and get new products out the door and do a lot of industry collaboration,” Rusnak says, noting that many large companies, especially in the pharmaceutical field, have realized they’re not as nimble as an educational institution can be and that it’s expensive to do research in-house. “That’s why you see the increase that’s occurred in industry funding of academic research, and I think it’s just going to get greater.”

The SmartState program has been a good vehicle for accelerating these partnerships. It has also increased opportunities for faculty members to commercialize or spin off their work themselves. One example of that is EyeStat, a noninvasive tool to assess cognitive impairment based on how a person blinks their eyes.

Although it was created by MUSC researchers, the EyeStat concept was licensed to life science entrepreneurs Douglas Carnes and Ryan Fiorini, who founded a company called blinktbi and raised an additional $4 million to support the technology transfer and marshal the device through the regulatory process. They hope to have FDA approval of the device later this year.

The ultimate goal is that EyeStat will not only be used for concussion detection, but also for routine neurological exams in physicians’ offices.

“Blinktbi is the poster child of how to be successful at commercialization of university research,” Rusnak says. “We have 20 or more other examples at different phases of development and all have their unique challenges. But that doesn’t mean we stop incubating them.”

He adds, “You never know when all of a sudden the needle will turn and you’ll get an industry partner and things will take off.”

MUSC isn’t alone when it comes to SmartState endowment-supported breakthroughs.

Last year, the University of South Carolina received one of the largest grants the university had ever received—$11.3 million from NIH—due to the work of Endowed Chair Igor Roninson.

In 2011, Roninson, director of the Cancer Center at Ordway Research Institute in Albany, N.Y., moved to South Carolina to assume the role of UofSC’s endowed chair in Translational Cancer Therapeutics and a professorship in the College of Pharmacy.

But he didn’t come alone. Roninson was accompanied by 10 other scientists and Senex Biotechnology, a cancer drug discovery company, with whom he began an ambitious effort to  enhance cancer research throughout the state. Since arriving in Columbia, Robinson and Senex Biotechnology have discovered a new cancer drug. 

Meanwhile, Senex itself has brought more than $3 million into the state economy through NIH Small Business Innovation Research Grants, private investment, and licensing fees.

Another person making a big difference is researcher Julius Fridriksson.

A SmartState endowed chair and professor in the UofSC’s Department of Communication Science and Disorders, Fridriksson has been studying how brains recover from a stroke, particularly as it relates to patients’ ability to communicate. In 2016, he was awarded an $11.1 million grant from NIH to expand his research into stroke recovery. That grant created the Center for the Study of Aphasia Recovery at UofSC.

Aphasia is a condition caused by a brain injury that affects a person’s ability to speak, write, read, and understand language. 

“The reason why South Carolina is important with regard to location is that the stroke rate here is very high. This gives us access to patients more than other places where stroke rates are lower,” Fridriksson says in a piece distributed by the university. “The benefit of a large lab like ours in a place like this is that we serve a lot of these patients. We include them in our studies and they receive free treatment and rehabilitation.”

How can one write about research and innovation in South Carolina without talking about robots? In this case, the smart robots Venkat Krovi is working on with his team as the Michelin endowed chair professor of vehicle automation at CU-ICAR.

The initiative has dovetailed with the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, an initiative whose goals include increasing worker productivity by 30 percent through the deployment of robotics and to help make robots more accessible to small- and medium-sized businesses. 

Krovi describes his current project as creating an R2D2 for the shop floor. The challenge Krovi is striving to overcome with his current work is born of an element of modern living that most of us take for granted—that we as consumers have been granted a choice in just about everything at the click of a laptop button.

“Companies like BMW give their customers lots of choices. For instance, you choose from as many as 10 different grills for your car,” Krovi said. “The thing is, if you’re the manufacturer, how do you stage all those possibilities so that you can deliver the right part to the right place in the production line at the right time?”

Krovi acknowledges you could have a person run back and forth to a warehouse to retrieve the needed grill, “but imagine doing this once every two minutes for an 8-hour shift.” The endowed chair’s answer is a collaborative robot—his R2D2—that can fetch and whisk the necessary grill to the line all day long without tiring or injury.

“The traditional vision of a robot is like, you know, it’s fenced off from you. Ostensibly to keep the robot safe, but really to keep humans safe. And to keep you from getting in the robot’s way as it is going about doing its thing,” he explains. “Collaborative robots are designed so that humans and robots can interact. They can work side by side, they can work in sequence, and they can actually hand stuff back and forth to each other. 

“These robots have dropped to a price point where they are actually deployable at the small and medium enterprise levels. The challenge, of course, is a perception gap,” Krovi continues. 

The researcher recalled a scene he witnessed at an auto show last year at which a presenter asked the audience whether they’d ever heard of “industry 4.0.”

“Pretty much all the hands shot up,” Krovi said.

But when the presenter went on to ask whether the members of the audience actually had digital transformation teams in their organizations, no one raised a hand.

“This is an area we are trying to make progress on at Clemson. We want to create dedicated robot maker spaces where we’ll have a few different types of robots and invite people in from small- and medium-sized businesses to show them how robots can address their specific or targeted problem,” he adds.

It’s easy to see how such a program would benefit the students, the university, and the small- and medium-sized businesses involved, but Krovi believes the benefits extend to the entire state.

“People ask, ‘Why make this investment [in innovation and research]?’ and it is an interesting question,” he says. “And I say, ‘Well, let me ask you this: Why do you need to invest in airports? Or roads?’ And the answer is, without an infrastructure, it’s every person for themselves.

“In essence, what we are attempting to do here is create an ecosystem of innovation,” he continues. “Now, there are no guarantees of success. But that’s how the capitalist system works.”