In an effort to encourage collaboration between the University and Michigan’s small business community, the College of Engineering (CoE) and the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) introduced the Small Company Innovation Program (SCIP). Established last year, SCIP provides financial incentives to small companies operating in Michigan to partner with CoE faculty and graduate students in research projects.
To fund the research partnerships, CoE and OVPR each contribute up to $15K to match the small business’s contribution of up to $30K. CoE will also waive the indirect costs on company support. All together, the companies that participate in SCIP have the opportunity of one year’s work with CoE faculty and a graduate student researcher at an approximately $75K value for a $30K investment. “This is a tool that the University uses to engage small, high-growth companies in becoming big companies, which is good for the region and the University” said Amy Klinke, Assistant Director of Corporate Relations and of the Center for Entrepreneurship. The program is currently expanding to work with other schools across campus, as well, to encourage joint research with Industry.
In its pilot year, SCIP funded two projects, one of which involved ME Professor Kazu Saitou and Ann Arbor-based Polyergic Informatics LLC (POLY). The partnership between Saitou’s lab and POLY began as a mere coincidence. The two groups were collaborating on a research proposal for a separate project when the idea to participate in SCIP was brought to the table. “During a discussion over a range of technical topics, I indicated that I had performed research in computer vision and image understanding,” recalled Michael Conlin, POLY’s Director of Business Development. “Professor Saitou then presented the ChemReader project. POLY was immediately interested.”
Over the past year, Saitou and Professor Gus Rosania of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, along with graduate student Jungkap Park, developed the idea for ChemReader, and Saitou’s lab designed the initial implementation. The goal of the project is to develop an automated system for annotating chemical databases. ChemReader accomplishes this by recognizing chemical structure diagrams in research articles and linking them with entries in databases. Saitou explained, “[The software] basically reads the images of the chemical compound drawings—the hexagons and atomic symbols—and outputs strings of texts in a standard format accepted by other analysis programs.”
The process of linking the chemical structures in databases to relevant patents and scientific articles is a service that is in high demand, as scientists seek to find, organize, and analyze large amounts of information about the chemical structures contained in these databases. Relevant information about chemical structures includes a structure’s synthesis, application, production, properties, biological effects, and toxicological profiles.
“The business objective of the collaboration is to reduce the costs and time for pharmaceutical scientists, researchers, and patent attorneys to organize, search, and utilize the ever-growing scientific and chemical literature,” said Conlin. The type of potential pilot customers that POLY is currently in the market for are publishers of scientific literature and information that maintain databases, organizations that have large literature databases accessed by their internal researchers, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, patent search firms, and other internet accessible database providers.
Regarding the process of seeking out potential customers, Saitou stressed the importance of those companies that provide similar annotation services using conventional techniques, like text mining. Saitou sees the incorporation of ChemReader’s image-based annotation technology into these types of services as an ideal solution. “What we found is that it works best if you combine [the two techniques] together, so rather than competing, we want to partner with those companies,” he said.
The success of the POLY-Saitou partnership proves how SCIP can benefit all parties involved. A small company enjoys first-class research work, a graduate student receives real-world experience, and the University plays host to an important and influential research project. But the benefits extend even beyond these individuals. Said Saitou, “It is a projection, but we anticipate that if the project goes full-fetch, POLY will play an important role in both consulting and in the development of the software, and they expect it will create lots of jobs. That’s the major advantage [of SCIP]: its contribution to the state and to Ann Arbor.”
ChemReader was recently featured in the technology section of The Detroit News.