Corrie Detweiler, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, eyes some samples in the lab. (Photo: CU Boulder)
The National Academy of Inventors (NAI) has ranked the CU system 14th among the “Top 100” institutions nationwide for recent patent activity. That prominent position reflects the strength of CU-led discoveries and their potential to be translated into society-benefiting technologies with the support of CU’s robust entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Editorial Note: As of Feb. 15, 2024, NAI has additionally ranked the CU System as 30th among the "Top 100" institutions worldwide.
Inventors throughout the CU system were granted 115 total utility patents in 2022, according to US Patent and Trademark Office data. This new ranking from the NAI compares, for the first time, innovation at U.S. universities (the CU system was previously 36th on NAI’s list of worldwide institutions). At that level of innovation, CU surged past a dozen other domestic research institutions including Cornell, Columbia and Northwestern.
CU Boulder was itself a frontrunner accounting for over half, or 61, of the patents in 2022. Each of those patents, plus another originating from CU Denver, was managed by Venture Partners at CU Boulder, which offers a host of entrepreneur-boosting programs to support inventors with the patent process and translating their inventions into the marketplace. Of the 62 patents facilitated by Venture Partners, more than half have already been licensed to partner companies, mostly to startups formed specifically to bring CU intellectual property to market. To date, those startups have collectively raised $840 million in funding.
That exceptional efficiency and efficacy in translating inventions into both licensed technology and startups is akin to building a structure one level at a time, said Bryn Rees, associate vice chancellor for research and innovation, and managing director of Venture Partners at CU Boulder. “Patents are part of the foundation of the building which also includes having a strong research enterprise and a culture where faculty and grad students are disclosing those inventions,” he said. “The building is a thriving innovation ecosystem where the ground floor—these patented inventions—are being used commercially. They’re bringing solutions to the world and creating economic development and impact.”
From patent to impact
One of the startups supported by Venture Partners addressing a critical, unmet need, said Rees, is Bactria Pharmaceuticals LLC. The company was co-founded by Corrie Detweiler, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at CU Boulder, who has spent decades targeting multi-drug resistant bacteria. Detweiler’s lab is working to understand the interaction between pathogens and their hosts and to identify compounds that can interfere with antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) infections, which have spiked in recent years, troubling health officials around the world.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AMR is an “urgent global public health threat” that was associated with nearly 5 million deaths worldwide in 2019. In the U.S. alone, 2.8 million AMR infections occur each year, resulting in 35,000 deaths annually. “Globally, we’re in a terrible position, and we need to get out of it,” said Detweiler.
Most research now being done to fight AMRs is focused on tweaking existing antibiotics and, while somewhat useful, it’s not enough, said Detweiler. “The problem is that bacteria evolve very quickly to overcome those tinkerings. So, we need whole new antibiotics.” (The last novel class of antibiotics to make it to market was discovered in 1984.)
Technology developed by Detweiler and colleagues is a major step in being able to find those ‘needle in a haystack’ compounds that neutralize superbugs. Their SAFIRE (Screen for Anti-infectives using Fluorescence microscopy of IntracellulaR Enterobacteriaceae) platform combs through databases of substances to find compounds that interfere with bacterial replication in mammalian cells.
Detweiler credits Venture Partners with supporting Bactria through various phases of development—from invention toward market application. “They have been enormously helpful with getting patents and with figuring out how to go through the licensing…They helped us get IP on the [SAFIRE] method, they encouraged me to co-found a company and told me how to go about doing that,” she said. Her innovation process is still underway, said Detweiler, and Venture Partners continues to lend support.
An innovation foundation for chart-topping technologies
The fact that CU is soaring up the NAI chart doesn’t surprise Detweiler because, she said, Venture Partners helps inventors “realize what they might be able to do with what they have. It’s an ongoing dialogue that now happens between faculty or anyone who’s a prospective inventor.”
Rees also wasn’t shocked that CU Boulder is gaining ground. “Our faculty and our graduate students see the new resources available to them for commercialization and are more likely to come and work with us and disclose their inventions,” he said. “Also, I think the university has an increasing commitment to financially supporting these endeavors. So, it’s a combination of resources and the entrepreneurial culture at the university.”
In addition to its “Top 100” ranking, NAI’s Fellows Program also has recognized the CU system as fertile ground for innovation. Five CU researchers, including Detweiler, are NAI senior fellows and NAI has named an additional 16 fellows from CU “who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.”
At the end of the day, the NAI’s recognition boils down to one major force driving innovators like Detweiler. Discovering something new that can also be useful “is thrilling,” she said.