A knack for seeing practical ways to translate ideas into creations people need and use is a key tool of the trade for inventors like UAA’s Dr. Helena Wisniewski.
Her gift for seeing potential has transformed even chance conversations with her daughter into “aha moments” that inspired a diversity of ideas: a method to provide on-demand advertising to people watching TV or movies, face-recognition software used on the internet by law enforcement to find missing children and reunite them with their families and biometric dolls that “recognize” their owners.
“When I had my company in biometrics, my daughter comes in and says, ‘If the door can recognize me, why can’t my doll?’” Wisniewski recounted. “I said, ‘No reason why not!’ I pursued that and did a startup on biometric toys.”
Seven patents have been issued for UAA-related ideas since Wisniewski’s arrival more than four years ago, including one for a fish-grinding mechanism a UAA engineering student devised. Wisniewski also launched the UAA Innovate awards, oversaw the filing of the university’s more than 42 patents and 39 invention disclosures and took part in launching UAA’s three startup companies.
Wisniewski’s work led to her becoming the first person from Alaska to be inducted into the National Academy of Inventors. She was officially named as a 2015 NAI Fellow at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in April.
Stevens Institute of Technology nominated Wisniewski, who had served as the institute’s vice president for university research and enterprise development from 2004-2008.
Wisniewski, vice provost of Research and Graduate Studies and dean of the UAA Graduate School, was among 168 inventors recognized at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
To be named as a Fellow, inventors must be nominated by their peers and undergo the scrutiny of the NAI Selection Committee, the Congressional Record stated. It continued, saying the inventors must have “had their innovations deemed as making significant impact on quality of life, economic development and welfare of society.”
This year’s class of Fellows includes individuals from 109 research universities and nonprofit research institutes spanning the United States and the world. Twenty-seven Nobel Laureates are among the luminaries in the 582-member group of Fellows. Collectively, the Fellows hold nearly 5,400 patents.
“It’s exciting, but it’s humbling when you see all the talent that’s there with you,” Wisniewski said. “In the induction that just took place, there were six Nobel Laureates, and people from places like MIT and Harvard. It’s a wonderful feeling to be a part of that.”
Making math useful to society
Wisniewski grew up in northern New Jersey, “in the Palisades right across the [Hudson] river from New York City,” she said. “We’d go to Broadway shows, opera, ballet.”
Math engaged Wisniewski very early in her life, and she grew that talent in college, where she earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics.
“I was always interested from the start in how to make mathematics and technology useful to society,” she said. “Initially, for example, I would take engineering courses in graduate school as well as courses in the sciences to really see where there were gaps that maybe mathematics could help fill.”
Wisniewski then created the first mathematics program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and began working with universities, government labs and private industry.
“That’s when the realization of how technology could really benefit the government and society started resonating,” she said. “We were seeing how we could transfer mathematical concepts to benefit the government and industry. In the course of that development, I saw some of the ideas really could lead to inventions and should be actually patented. And moreover, startup companies should be formed.”
Wisniewski developed that idea and used it throughout her career, bringing it with her to UAA.
“That is probably the genesis,” she said. “Really seeing the broader picture, how a truly mathematical or scientific concept could grow from that and be packaged and marketed commercially to be beneficial.”
Through the Innovate program, Wisniewski connects with UAA faculty to learn about what they’re working on and promote and market their research.
“They’re the source for UAA,” she said.
Attending a variety of events and meetings, most notably National Council for Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer annual events in Washington, D.C., she said, help UAA by bringing together people interested in turning concepts into real-world products and services.
“What it is, is a mix of corporations, universities, government organizations, to really network and see what is the interest of venture capitalists, what are the technology trends, what directions are they going in and how does UAA fit into that,” she explained.
Last year, Colin McGill and Eric Murphy, two UAA professors involved in a UAA startup company, Cogniceutic Solutions, attended the NCETT event. The startup has been researching—through experiments with aged and younger rats—the memory-enhancing benefits of a natural substance found in Alaska blueberries.
“I brought them with me so they could really see how venture capitalists think,” she said. “You have 30 seconds to state your case and that’s pretty much it. Either you got their interest or you didn’t. What they’re interested in is not hearing all the details of your research necessarily but what are the bottom lines here: why is it going to be important, do you have a team together, how much investment are you looking for, how far along are you. And so the pitch has to be very succinct.”
Engagement with others at conferences and committee meetings, she said, was a key reason why the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate launched its Arctic Domain Awareness Center at UAA in October.
“It’s an example of knowing an opportunity can come up, being ready for it when it comes along,” she said. “If I wasn’t serving on committees in the government or going to conferences in D.C. and elsewhere, these opportunities I wouldn’t realize are there. That’s an important fact—recognizing that opportunity and going after it.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement