Joe Harding and Jay Wright both were young WSU faculty when they met under unusual circumstances.
More than 30 years later, that accidental meeting has blossomed through friendship and research collaboration into hundreds of journal articles, eight patented commercial applications and creation of Pacific Northwest Biotechnology — a privately held corporation fueled by 20 outside investors.
This all began in 1976 when Harding moved his family to Pullman. An unscrupulous real estate agent rented Harding a house, which also had been leased to Wright and his family.
“I came home and found this U-Haul truck in the driveway and everybody sitting around the table comparing leases,” Wright said with a laugh.
(Jay Wright, left, and Joe Harding have collaborated on research at WSU for more than 30 years. They established their own company to commercialize their discoveries. Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services)
“We figured out what happened, unloaded the truck into our basement, and then went down to reason with that realtor.”
“After that, we became great friends,” Harding added. “We discovered that we were both interested in the same research, and we learned to work together despite our differing disciplines.”
Harding was trained as a medicinal chemist and had just joined the faculty at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Wright was trained as a physiologist and was an assistant professor in the department of psychology.
“We were among the first involved in interdisciplinary research at WSU,” Wright explained. “Research collaboration across disciplines is much more common these days — and is a much better way to do things.
“The researchers are able to investigate problems more successfully because they see from different perspectives, and the undergraduate and graduate students involved benefit by learning other approaches. In addition, collaboration stretches dollars by sharing expensive equipment.”
After the publication of dozens of research papers, they decided to establish their own company to commercialize their discoveries.
“Jay and I had made these discoveries that would benefit people, but they were not developed,” Harding said. “So, we decided to try.”
Now their company employs about 10 people full time and a dozen part time at the facility in the WSU Research Park. Harding is CEO and Wright is vice president.
“We have some unique technologies that are now mature enough to be attractive to pharmaceutical companies,” Harding said. “We have four technologies ready to market: two different families of anticancer agents, one cognition-enhancing agent, and a wound-healing agent for people like burn victims. Before autumn, we expect to begin the licensing process.”
Their experience shows that research collaboration works, Wright explained.
“We both needed to learn about the other’s discipline. Initially, it was discouraging, since we were both trained to think differently. However, the benefits were huge.”
“WSU can do more, and we faculty can do more (see adjacent sidebar),” Wright said. “If we encouragemore interdisciplinary research, the payoff will be great.”
Tips to enhance collaboration, commercialization
Jay Wright and Joe Harding offer these suggestions to increase the amount and quality of both interdisciplinary research and commercialization of research findings at WSU:
• Create a program to facilitate interaction among newly hired faculty focusing on common research interests and goals that would encourage interdisciplinary research within and across colleges. This could take the form of a lunchtime exchange of research interests that would serve to inform faculty about opportunities to collaborate.
• Provide additional avenues for junior and senior faculty with complimentary research interests to interact across departments, colleges and campuses. This could be facilitated by interdisciplinary workshops that include presentations and discussions by existing interdisciplinary teams encouraged at the college and universitylevels.
Additional seed-money programs to support the collection of preliminary data by new interdisciplinary teams could further encourage interaction. Less formal discussions with existing interdisciplinary teams could also be an important first step in facilitating these initial interactions.
• Encourage faculty to disclose research findings with commercial potential to the WSU Intellectual Property Office. Faculty need to understand that we have a responsibility to move forward with commercially important research findings to meet the needs of society.
• Formalize mentoring programs that link faculty interested in commercializing their research programs with experienced entrepreneurial faculty and WSU alumni who can help move this process forward.
• Expand entrepreneurial workshops so faculty and students interested in commercializing their research, or working in the private sector, can benefit from available expertise.
• Enhance interactions with the business communities in Spokane, Seattle, Portland, Boise and San Francisco to improve our reputation for moving basic research findings toward practical solutions.
• Improve partnering between the WSU Research Foundation and entrepreneurial-minded faculty to facilitate the process of business development. We need to get the word out that WSU will be an active developer of intellectual property and will move quickly and fairly in the translation of on-campus research findings to successful commercialization.