A lab head and product developer
She encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific value, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science. (Science 12 June 2015)
Jackie Ying was eager to push her already productive lab at MIT into the life sciences. Todd Zion was first attracted to her lab because of her fanatical work ethic, and her business-minded approach appealed to his nascent interest in becoming an entrepreneur – she says that every graduate student should tackle a project not only of tremendous scientific interest, but also of great commercial potential.
He was asked by Ying to see if the same technology her lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines could create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes. He spent two years trying to find a material that prevented the insulin from leaking out before he realised that the secret lay in chemically modifying the insulin itself. The discovery led to SmartCells, a company he and Ying co-founded in 2003, which was later sold to Merck for an undisclosed sum.
His business savvy drew the attention of Lita Nelsen, the longtime director of MIT’s technology licensing office because of the way he had run the company as a tight operation, and he was soon back starting another company with his former colleagues.
Ying says that roughly a quarter of her MIT students have founded companies or gone to work for a startup, but she has chosen not to take that path. ‘What interests me’, she says ‘is bringing the technology to a certain level where you can spin it off and then playing an advisory role to make sure that things are running smoothly.’
Andrey Zarur, one of Ying’s first graduate students who developed the technology that Zion later modified to create SmartCells says Ying ‘would take me with her on visits to companies to get funding for the lab. And I would make the presentation. People thought she was taking advantage of me because she made me do three PhD projects, but this was preparing me for the life I want’.
Ying went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore (‘IBN’) – to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done exactly that. IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.
Sometimes, she suggests, faculty members need help in finding a project with commercial promise, and sometimes she needs to find partners in industry to help with a project. Overall she hopes to find a way for IBN to help nurture new companies without losing all the scientists who did the technology’s foundational work. ‘We will continue to help the firms with research’, Ying says, ‘and maybe they will give us not just royalties but some shares to the people involved.’
John Whatmore, February 2016
* It is rumoured that Telefonica’s Wayra Lab is in discussions with Isis, Oxford University’s technology transfer organisation, to set up a unit in Oxford like that of the former’s Accelerator in London.
* Imperial College now has at least four accelerators, each in a different field, each designed to encourage an entrepreneurial environment alongside high quality academic research and teaching. (A full description of these will appear shortly in my blog series.)