Dr. Lynne Opperman, director
Transforming big ideas into new technologies
In these Q-and-A sessions, we take a closer look at some pressing topics within the dental profession and just what they mean to Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry. From TAMHSC-BCD initiatives to hot-button questions, we consult the college’s own subject matter experts to get their input.
This issue includes the perspectives of Dr. Lynne Opperman — director of the Office of Technology Development and professor in biomedical sciences — on the benefits of translating research ideas into projects for potential commercialization.
She offers a closer look into what events transpired to form the office several years ago, including a doctoral student’s grand idea for a bone distraction device, which eventually led to grant funding and publications in several scientific journals. We also get a glimpse of where the office’s efforts are headed. News of a meeting with a Texas-based company to discuss business-funded research offers an exciting outlook at the possibilities.
A developmental biologist by training, Opperman — now president-elect of the American Association of Anatomists — has gleaned substantial insight during the past several years spent as a facilitator of great ideas, not the least of which is finding innovative means to research funding.
“I might not have a big idea myself, but bring the idea to me and I can translate it into a project,” Opperman says. Now we hear more from this faculty member who, during an early December meeting, cautions never to tell her something can’t be done. She’ll find a way to go up, under, over or through — and the project will be completed.
BDRO: You’ve led the technology development office at Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry for nearly six years now. Looking back to the beginning, just what was the driving force behind this initiative?
Opperman: In the early ‘thousands’ we had a Ph.D. student from Egypt. He had a really cool idea to do a bone distraction of the mandible. He basically had a napkin drawing. All he needed was a little bit of money to get a prototype for the device. He had contacted the former Technology Licensing Office at The Texas A&M University System. It had been more than a year and he hadn’t heard from them. After two years, they basically said they weren’t interested.
At that stage, I already had started working with him, and we had submitted a Small Business Technology Transfer grant proposal. We found a really marvelous little company that builds prototypes here in Dallas — Custom Scientific — and our STTR grant was funded. I firmly believe in serendipity, because right at that time, A&M got a new vice chancellor for commercialization. He said commercialization would become a new focus; that the A&M System was ‘going to encourage technology transfer.’
While all of that was still in process, faculty had heard about the buzz going on at the health science center about starting a commercialization advisory committee, and they had heard about Mohamed’s device. People started coming out of the woodwork. They would come to me saying, ‘I’ve got this great idea, but how do I go about getting research funds, disclosing and getting published?’ Baylor had never done technology transfer before, and we had never had patents assigned to us. When people started coming to me and asking about this, I loved talking to them and encouraging them, but it was time consuming. I knew that if we wanted to be able to respond to opportunities, we needed to have a point person.
I put together a proposal for Dr. Cole and described the commercialization effort at the HSC level, wondering if I was wasting my time. The response I got was ‘OK, we’re going to do it, the whole hog, and you’re going to be the director.’
BDRO: What is the office’s principal value to researchers at TAMHSC-BCD?
Opperman: One-stop shopping for technology and research ideas, access to information and funding, and team building. I think very often what faculty need is to go somewhere, and have someone listen to them and get excited about their project. It helps to build enthusiasm and overcome inertia.
This office can be a place where faculty collaboration can take place. To make this work, we need clinical faculty and scientists working together; and on top of that, small businesses and alumni in the community. I spend quite a lot of time talking with small businesses and partnering them with faculty members that match required expertise. It is a two-way street. When faculty members have an idea, I go to small businesses to see if they want to develop it.
You can also use different types of mechanisms to get grant funding. If you have these translational projects, you have the opportunity for small business grants and foundation grants. You end up being able to target different funding opportunities that you can’t get with basic scientific research.
BDRO: What do you consider the greatest achievement or contribution of this office since it was established?
Opperman: I really believe that our clinical departments and our residents have become less afraid of the fourth-floor researchers. Now I have residents coming to me wanting to be partnered up to work with them. We had small levels of interaction in the past. Now we really do have more of our basic science faculty involved in these projects.
BDRO: Are there any developments on the horizon you’d like to mention?
Opperman: One exciting development was the generous assignment to TAMHSC-BCD by Dr. Phil Campbell — Robert E. Gaylord Endowed Chair in Orthodontics — of patents for an ulcer powder to treat oral ulcers. We have licensed this technology to Wedgewood Pharmacy in New Jersey, and the powder is currently being tested in the Department of Orthodontics, both on aphthous ulcers and on traumatic lesions from orthodontic braces.
In addition, the A&M System’s Office of Technology Commercialization is helping us with one of our own devices developed in-house. Dr. Oksana Budinskaya — assistant professor in diagnostic sciences — has found a company in San Antonio that specializes in vacuum-assisted wound healing, but they’ve never applied the technology to a dental environment.
Her device, the Vip-Vac, is a vacuum irrigation process. It is slightly smaller than a toothbrush and has a suction device on it. You stimulate the gums by pulling on them with this device, which stimulates blood vessel production to help fend off gingivitis.
Dr. Budinskaya and Dr. Joe Jilka — assistant professor at TAMHSC medical school’s Institute of Regenerative Medicine — have been meeting with the company to discuss sponsored research opportunities. To be at the point where we’re meeting with a company about one of our technologies is very exciting.