by Benjamin Bathke

A discussion on how to tap academic institutions to bring innovation to market turned into an opportunity for Washington University in St. Louis students to build ventures based on patents owned by the world’s largest aerospace company — The Boeing Patent Challenge.

At the final pitching event in December, Boeing executives selected three winners from a total of 30 participating teams. The Challenge is a new joint project of WashU’s Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Boeing Phantom Works Ventures.

“I think it’s a great way to show Boeing collaborating in innovative areas and giving really smart and excited students a chance to interact with a big company to see if there’s synergy,” said Tracey Cowan, director of Phantom Works Strategy at Boeing.

The three winning teams are Spectraserve (cancer detection); Nano Syntech (wearable devices); and StentIT (medical stent fracture detection).

“The challenge is the best group work project I’ve ever done,” said Christopher Weber, a student in the School of Law who took first prize worth $2,500 with Spectraserve. Weber and his teammates want to apply Boeing’s hyperspectral imaging technology to identify cancer cells in real time while reducing cost, risk and complications during surgery.

Both WashU and Boeing had to step out of traditional roles to create a mutually beneficial experience. “What really made this challenge go as well as it did is that both side were extremely flexible,” said Barry Martin, who is the project manager for the challenge and Phantom Works Ventures employee at Boeing. “We actually made a lot of pivots based on student input.”

The goal of the competition was to commercialize Boeing’s patents in non-traditional markets for Boeing while giving WashU students business exposure.

“Previously, the only business experience I had was from Craigslist,” Weber said. “The challenge was like working a muscle I didn’t even know was there.” He also attributed Spectraserve’s diversity to winning the competition.

Stu Voboril, director of Capture at Boeing’s Phantom Works, said Spectraserve and the other teams far exceeded Boeing’s expectations in regard to innovation and entrepreneurship.

“The way the students came across — their emotions, their feeling, their professionalism — none of them were nervous,” Voboril said.

Samantha Feng and her team, Nano Syntech, finished second with a $1,500 prize. The venture aims to enable the continuous charging of wearable devices using Boeing’s nanoparticle heat-sink technology. Feng, an MBA student at Olin Business School, placed great value on meeting students and faculty from other schools within Washington University. “I learned a lot from the engineering side of things, which I don’t really get to see in the business school,” she said.

“The challenge has given us a lot of opportunity to carve our own niche into markets we really find interesting,” said Nathan Reed, a doctoral student in energy, environmental and chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and a member of the Nano Syntech team. “We’re hoping to take some of this startup money, move forward, start building some prototypes and see where that takes us.”

Emre Toker, managing director of the Skandalaris Center, said the three winning teams, as well as several other participating teams, will conduct some initial de-risking “killer experiments” associated with their venture concepts.

StentIT, which hopes to make use of Boeing’s non-invasive fracture detection technology to identify coronary and peripheral stent fractures early on, finished third and took home $1,000.

Boeing has already agreed to expand the partnership with WashU by funding another competition this semester. “We see a lot of value in having an external perspective of what our intellectual property can be applied to,” Cowan said.

Toker said Skandalaris is also looking to partner with other large corporations to put on comparable challenges, as well as with a subset of WashU’s own intellectual property portfolio.

The next round of the competition is already underway. “We have worked closely with the Skandalaris Center to make the spring edition even better,” Martin said. “It will be exciting to see what this semester’s teams explore.”

By creating a unique framework of collaboration, the Boeing Patent Challenge could be a harbinger of similar initiatives that try to tap into the entrepreneurial potential of universities while helping big firms commercialize their intellectual property.

Learn more about the spring Boeing Patent Challenge at upcoming information sessions.