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2 UH scientists receive prestigious national recognition for fostering innovation

Mark Clarke (left) and Wei-Chuan Shih were named among the National Academy of Inventors' inaugural class of senior members. Courtesy of the University of Houston

Two researchers at the University of Houston have been named to the inaugural class of senior members for the National Academy of Inventors. The new distinction recognizes the honorees for fostering innovation and educating and mentoring future innovators — as well as their contribution to science and technology.

The two UH honorees are Mark Clarke, associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs, and Wei-Chuan Shih, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Both will be recognized at the eighth annual NAI meeting in Houston this April, a release from UH says.

"Dr. Clarke and Dr. Shih both have impressive records of producing impactful intellectual property and spurring innovation that is pertinent to the Houston region," Amr Elnashai, vice president of research and technology at UH, says in the release. "Their further efforts, including helping UH faculty commercialize technologies as well as working with graduate and undergraduate students to boost their entrepreneurial efforts, are a critical contribution to building the region's innovation ecosystem."

NAI named 65 total scientists from 37 universities as senior members. The scientists have been named on over 1,100 patents issued in the United States. Ten other Texas scientists made the inaugural class, representing Texas Tech university, Texas A&M University, Baylor College of Medicine, and University of Texas at Arlington.

The organization also has a fellowship program, in which UH has 12 current fellows.

Clarke has been at UH for over a decade and previously held the position of associate vice chancellor/vice president for technology transfer at the UH Division of Research, where he oversaw a portfolio of 360 technology patents, according to the release. Clarke has 13 patents to his name and previously worked at two startups — both commercialized technologies Clarke developed in his tenure at NASA then UH.

UH's other senior NIA member, Shih, has been granted 11 patents in the US. His NanoBioPhotonics Group has developed a number of sensing and imaging technologies and devices for biomedicine and environmental testing, among other fields. Shih, who has been at the university for over nine years, created a startup with a group of students called DotLens. The company produced and distributed lenses that could be used to convert a smartphone into a microphone.

A few months ago, a Houston scientist received international recognition when he won the Nobel Prize for the cancer research he did for the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer center. Jim Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor.
Hey startups, are you ready to rock and roll? Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Editor's note: If you think you can't learn some business tips from a rock band, think again. The University of Houston's Big Idea has rounded up a few lessons to be learned from the Rolling Stones — along with advice from UH researchers.

"Start Me Up"

In 1970, the Rolling Stones' long-standing deal with Decca Records expired. This opened a giant door for the band, which I assume they painted black.

Because the band had achieved such success, they were able to form their own record label, dubbed Rolling Stones Records. This was done in an effort to exert more control over their music, not just creatively, but financially. The Stones could now retain the rights over their own music.

Much akin to this move, many startups are launched because entrepreneurs wish to have more control over certain aspects of their technology or product. When asked why he launched his own startup, James Briggs, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry at the University of Houston and president and CFO of Metabocentric Biotechnologies, explained, "Primarily, it was because we felt that development of the technology stood a much better chance if we prosecuted it rather than trying to find a licensing partner."

"Under Your Thumb"

It's no secret that one of the biggest perks of developing your own startup is that you get to be the one to take care of your baby; to oversee the development of your tech through all its stages. You and your co-founders make the decisions on the long road to achieving your vision. Similarly, Professor Briggs and his business partner John Weihua, Ph.D., chairman and CEO of Metabocentric, could now control their company and develop it according to their vision. Had Professor Briggs and Chairman Weihua gone with a licensing partner at such an early stage of their startup, it could have stymied their financial growth.

A licensing entity is not just costly, it handcuffs your startup to dealing with only one licensing partner: them. As a result, you can't generate revenue elsewhere, which you can do if you control your own company.

Much like the Stones' newfound ability to control their own music by not having the tentacles of Decca Records around it, Professor Briggs and Chairman Weihua now had that same ability with their tech; all because they chose to venture out on their own in the infancy of their startup. They were able launch their startup without licensing partners by acquiring non-dilutive funding, which grants startups money without seeking equity in return. So, again, you keep more control of your tech.

"Beast of Burden"

Big record companies have always made it a point to primarily sign acts that are already well established and have a strong fan base locally. Artists in the '60s had to really work hard to gain a big enough name for themselves in their region. Flyers, radio ads, playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, and birthday parties for free just to get your name out there, all the while having to create new material; musicians looking to get signed really had to put in the work.

Before they became household names, the Rolling Stones had garnered a big following in London in 1963. Big enough that the then-gigantic Decca Records noticed and decided to sign them. Record companies sign bands with big local followings because they are more likely to succeed on a grand scale, as opposed to artists who never ventured beyond their garage. In a sense, this was a way for big record companies to reduce the risk of signing an artist that turns out to be a dud.

"Beast of Burden (Remix)"

"Pharmaceutical companies, now, look to small biotech startups to de-risk the lead and approach before they consider partnerships or acquisitions," proclaimed Professor Briggs during his presentation at UH's Startup Pains event. "Pharmaceutical companies don't want to buy failure, they want to buy the success. So they make sure to look for small biotech companies who bring their tech to a point where it is de-risked enough that a partnership suddenly becomes less of a risk to undertake."

Biotech entrepreneurs have to also put in a lot of work to position their startups for potential deals and partnerships with giant pharmaceutical companies. Laying the groundwork for a startup includes searching for investors, virtually begging for money, entering competitions, updating your tech, growing your team, commercializing your product, and staying relevant. "It's a lot of hard work. There will be successes and there will be failures. But in the end, if you stay true to yourselves and your company, there's a greater chance it will pay off."

"Let's Spend the Night Together"

Chemistry, the non-science-y kind, is one of the most overlooked aspects of startups for entrepreneurs. The chemistry a team of individuals have with each other makes for a positive company culture that maintains high morale.

In music, nothing is more important than chemistry. You are whole rather than the sum of a band's parts. Mick Jagger met Keith Richards when they were 16 and became friends because they owned the same Muddy Waters record. Since that time, they have remained best friends. In the studio and on stage, few duos have portrayed the same level of camaraderie and chemistry as Mick and Keith. They met their drummer Charlie Watts at 17, just a year later, and bassist Ronnie Wood in 1975, and lo and behold, they're still all together today.

With a catalog of over 500 songs over 50 years, with the same four band members for the majority of that time, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better paragon of chemistry than the Rolling Stones.

For startups, a strong company culture composed of like-minded individuals working together with chemistry is a prime way to keep your employees motivated, especially when your company is so young, you cannot pay them very much. "You have to remember that most startups are extremely tiny, with 2 to 3 people even, so chemistry is vital. You want to have a culture where you can air your grievances with each other and be honest about your company," Professor Briggs said during the Q & A session of Startup Pains.

"Time Is On Your Side"

A good startup sees its employees working together, functioning as a well-oiled machine, spending long nights together figuring out problems, taking turns ordering Chinese for late meetings, checking each other's work, and learning each other's personalities to more effectively communicate. It takes time. But if the chemistry isn't there naturally, it'll be there once you put in the time to iron out each other's wrinkles.

Investors want to see that your startup has a positive culture before they invest. Similarly, funding entities view company culture as a component that impacts a startup's net profits. If your startup is in disarray, do you really think an intelligent investor is going to want to give you millions of their dollars?

"Even if your tech is great, investors need to see that the company behind the tech is worth the risk."


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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.