As global challenges become increasingly complex and unpredictable, solutions will require nimble responses. "In academia, one way this can be done is by more quickly translating research into real-world applications," says UMass Amherst Distinguished Professor in Chemistry S. Thai Thayumanavan.
Thayumanavan is in a distinct position of authority on the matter. His research team, Thayumanavan Group, is exploring innovative new drug-delivery methods that could have game-changing implications for treatment of cancer and other diseases. In 2019, he won UMass Amherst's prestigious Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for leading this research endeavor, and is now using the prize money to bring the project closer to real-world application.
While “academics are really good at developing promising technology, they're not as good at identifying market potential,” says Thayumanavan. “We need to build a bridge over what academics and entrepreneurs call the ‘Valley of Death,’” he says.
“So much of the academic innovations have great market potential but they disappear into thin air because this Valley of Death is not bridged,” he adds.
In order to span that gap, Thayumanavan says, we must forge partnerships with companies. “We must cultivate entrepreneurs who walk around campus looking for potential application for research occurring on campus,” he says. If we are able to implement a robust model or a framework that connects the divide between scientific discovery and market applications, so research is translated into real-world applications, “we could go a long way toward saving lives,” Thayumanavan adds.
This approach benefits students as well, says Thayumanavan, as such partnerships provide students real-world experience. “We want to encourage corporations to host interns, so students are exposed to industry research and industry product development, which will contribute to industry productivity — and have a meaningful impact on the students’ future,” says Thayumanavan.
Scholarships that pay graduate students to conduct research are also essential, says Thayumanavan. The idea being that instead of working as teaching assistants, which takes time away from research, they can concentrate on research and their classes, which helps them ease into the world of research.
“They integrate themselves into real-world research and find success, and that has a ripple effect that benefits everyone,” he says.