"We've had conversations with at least 25 universities who are trying to adopt what we're doing," says Bill Jackson, executive director of U of I's Discovery Partners Institute, a tech research and teaching center planned for downtown Chicago. "Indiana University has visited Champaign. Notre Dame has come to Champaign. I've been on the phone with Carnegie Mellon. A number of universities have come to Champaign and signed (nondisclosure agreements) and are working through the process."
If the technology is adopted beyond its own campuses, it would be a victory for U of I, adding to the prestige of the state's largest public research university and giving it an edge in attracting top-flight faculty, students and research funds.
In normal times, the kind of breakthrough U of I believes it has made might be a prime opportunity to commercialize the research by creating a startup or licensing the technology to businesses. But universities don't want to be seen as cashing in on a pandemic. AUTM, a technology-transfer trade group, issued guidelines often called the "COVID pledge" that encourage researchers to adopt "time-limited, non-exclusive royalty-free licenses" to get new technologies into use as quickly as possible. U of I is among nearly 100 universities that have signed the pledge.
"We put in a provisional patent application, but we're also sharing the secret sauce," Jackson says. "Our mission is more than commercial. Our mission is also about making a social impact, by changing the supply of testing in cost, time and quality. Private-equity firms and others have set up testing, and they are charging over $60 to $150 per test with more than 24-hour turnaround times, oftentimes days. That's not valuable."
The university set up an entity, called T3 Shield, to market the saliva testing outside Illinois. With Jackson as its principal officer, it's chaired by Don Edwards, CEO of Flexpoint Ford, a Chicago-based private-equity firm, and chairman of the U of I board of trustees. T3's board also includes Mike Tokarz, a U of I alum who is a private-equity investor and investment banker, and Andreas Cangellaris, provost of the Urbana-Champaign campus.
"T3 Shield is something to answer the call from all the other universities we're getting inquiries from, along with a series of businesses we're also getting inquiries from," Jackson says.
Across the country, universities have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by unleashing their research capabilities, producing innovations in everything from protective gear and medical equipment to testing, treatment and vaccination. "People just dropped everything to work on this," says Robin Rasor, executive director of licensing and ventures at Duke University, which saw a surge in patent filings and had a record number of invention disclosures by faculty and staff during the fiscal year ended June 30. "A good amount of that was COVID-related."
Illinois isn't the only university that has produced innovation around COVID testing. Yale University received emergency use authorization from the Food & Drug Administration for a saliva test just a few days before U of I. Yale says it's not seeking to commercialize the test.
Rutgers University also developed an at-home COVID saliva test in partnership with a commercial testing lab and medical supplier. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder created a saliva test, which they say yields results in 45 minutes. It's commercializing the test through a spinoff company.
Jackson didn't rule out turning T3 Shield into a private company but says, "It's too early to tell."
Tim Fan, a U of I veterinary medicine professor who worked on the saliva test, says, "Our main focus has been: Let's make sure we're successful on campus. Our success will serve as a beacon to show this is possible, and, obviously, a byproduct of that success would naturally lead to opportunities for commercialization or licensing beyond the immediate community."
Potential opportunities include not only other universities but also companies looking to protect large workforces against the virus.
"The university example is going to be useful for other organizations who are trying to get back to some semblance of normal: big corporations, think about cruise ships, meatpacking plants, nursing homes—all these people trying to do mass testing because of the nature of their organizations," says Dr. Amesh Adalja, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Even if the university doesn't get a financial windfall from its testing and tracking innovation, the economic benefits could be substantial, says Philip Hockberger, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine who also was a research administrator.
"What those who have the test can do that others can't is the tracking, the authorization," he says. "The test isn't something that's going to make a lot of money by itself. Getting everybody back to school or work, that's priceless right now."