Epps, Lee honored by National Academy of Inventors
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Evan Krape | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase December 07, 2021
NAI Fellows Program recognizes outstanding inventions with tangible impact
The National Academy of Inventors (NAI) has added two University of Delaware researchers to its Fellows Program — Thomas H. Epps, III, and Kelvin Lee. The new honors, announced Tuesday, December 7, are the highest professional distinction awarded to academic inventors.
The NAI Fellows Program recognizes those who have “demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society,” according to the program website.
Epps, the Allan and Myra Ferguson Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UD with a joint appointment in Materials Science and Engineering, is a leader in nanostructured polymers and biobased materials. He is director of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials (CHARM) and co-director of the Center for Plastics Innovation, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded Energy Frontier Research Center. He has five patents, including one licensed to his startup Lignolix Inc., and seven more pending.
He is “an outstanding innovator whose groundbreaking research has had a major impact on chemical engineering in general, and polymer chemistry and macromolecular science in particular,” wrote Levi Thompson, dean of the College of Engineering. “[His] research and innovation have focused on the design, synthesis, processing and characterization of polymeric materials that self-assemble to form nanoscale structures.”
Lee is the Gore Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UD and Institute Director for the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL). He is known for his impact on U.S. innovation policy in Washington D.C., his work to catalyze advanced manufacturing innovation in the United States, and his impact on diverse technical areas including proteomic methods, Alzheimer's disease diagnosis and biopharmaceutical manufacturing. He has six patents and one more pending.
“His research is highly cited and used by diverse researchers from academia, government, and industry to advance a quantitative understanding of living systems,” said Joy Goswami, assistant director of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships for UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships, who nominated Lee. “His discoveries and innovations related to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and Alzheimer's disease have led to the first antemortem diagnostic tests for these neurodegenerative diseases and the prion test is in routine clinical use around the world.”
To date, NAI fellows hold more than 48,000 U.S. patents, which have generated more than 13,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 1 million jobs. In addition, more than $3 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI fellow discoveries.
The 2021 fellow class hails from 116 research universities and governmental and non-profit research institutes worldwide. Those researchers collectively hold over 4,800 U.S. patents. Among the new class of fellows are 33 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and three Nobel Laureates. Their collective body of research and entrepreneurship covers a broad range of scientific disciplines involved with technology transfer of their inventions for the benefit of society. This year’s class also reflects NAI’s dedicated efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in its membership, with the addition of three outstanding academic female black inventors.
The induction ceremony will be held in June during the 11th annual meeting of the NAI in Phoenix, Arizona.
Thomas H. Epps, III
The NAI recognition adds to an extensive list of honors for Epps, including election as a fellow of the American Chemical Society earlier this year and last year as a fellow of the ACS Division of Polymer Chemistry and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE). He is also a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) and winner of its John H. Dillon Medal in 2017, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (2018) and a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow in 2014.
Epps has published more than 125 peer-reviewed articles and given more than 220 invited conference presentations and seminars.
His research is on the cutting edge of efforts to address the problems of plastic waste, including how to develop a “circular” life cycle for plastics that leads not to the discard pile, but to a long life of ongoing use and reuse.
He finds the most satisfaction, he said, in the collaborative efforts these endeavors draw on.
“When you look at the patents and inventions, I am not the sole inventor on any of them,” he said. “All of these ideas are team efforts and come from having good people to work with – students, postdocs, collaborators, friends and colleagues. The fun aspect is the exchange of ideas and bringing different people together that allows us to come up with new things. All the people working together on these separate topics and inventions that appear to show some promise — that’s what I’m most excited about.”
Epps said he isn’t interested in accumulating patents. He looks for projects that will have an impact. Among those are inventions that help to turn biomass waste into valuable resources and others that will help to protect soldiers.
“We have this materials expertise,” he said. “And we ask — what is the problem and can we use our tools to help solve that problem? We’re not going to solve everything. But we ask where is this going to fit in and have the most impact? That’s how we try to work through some of the problems.”
Those exchanges — listening, asking questions and gathering insight — are often the foundry of innovative ideas.
“I know what I know and what I can do,” Epps said. “What’s super exciting to me is going into a meeting with a collaborator in another area, where I can ask questions, understand what they’re doing and see what I can apply to that. That’s the fun. It’s not necessarily just talking about what we do, but it’s listening and saying, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Why do you do that? And why don’t you do this?’ And from there, it’s ‘Oh! We have an idea now.’”
Angela L. Holmberg, Joseph F. Stanzione, III, Richard P. Wool, and Thomas H. Epps, III, “Bio-Based Block Polymers Derived from Lignin and Fatty Acids.” U.S. Pat. #9,512,249. Issued 12/06/2016.
Wei-Fan Kuan and Thomas H. Epps, III, “Tapered Block Copolymer Electrolytes.” U.S. Pat. #9,935,332. Issued 04/03/2018.
Angela L. Holmberg, Kaleigh H. Reno, and Thomas H. Epps, III, “Functionalized Dimethoxyphenol Monomers and Methods for Preparing Such Monomers.” U.S. Pat. #10,253,131. Issued 04/09/2019.
C. M. Shelton and T. H. Epps, III, “Device and method for making shear-aligned, solvent-case films.” U.S. Pat. #10,929,664. Issued 11/10/2020.
M. B. Gordon, G. E. Knappe, S. Wang, N. J. Wagner, T. H. Epps, III, C. J. Kloxin, “Stress-Responsive Compositions and Uses Thereof.” U.S. Pat. #10,968,301. Issued 04/06/2021.
Lee is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the AIMBE. He has received numerous awards, including being the inaugural winner of the American Electrophoresis Society Lifetime Achievement award, the AIChE Professional Progress Award, the Biotechnology and Bioengineering Elmer Gaden Award for Outstanding Publication, the ACS’ Marvin Johnson Award, and the Association of University Research Parks’ COVID-19 Excalibur Award to NIIMBL, among many others.
He has published more than 150 peer-reviewed articles and has been the principal investigator on more than $450 million of grants and contracts with government agencies and companies. He is on the FDA’s Pharmaceutical Science and Clinical Pharmacology Advisory Committee and on the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network Donor Advisory Committee.
His work in biopharmaceutical manufacturing technologies is aimed at development of higher quality medicines for all and his influence is extensive in science and policy. He leads a reference genome community, which includes more than 52,000 users around the world. NIIMBL includes 190 member companies and nonprofits. As chair of the Manufacturing USA Institute Directors Council, he represents more than 2,300 members and their 1,600 projects, 400 patents and license agreements.
Lee said he sees the NAI recognition as a testament to the great collaborators he has worked with.
“It's a tremendous honor and very humbling at the same time,” he said. “It's humbling because I've had the opportunity to work with many incredibly talented students, postdocs and collaborators who find innovative solutions to challenging problems. Receiving an honor like this is a wonderful reminder about all of the hard work that they've done and it's a reflection of their efforts, innovations, and creativity.”
He points with special satisfaction to work done with Abraham “Bramie” Lenhoff, Allan P. Colburn Professor of Chemical Engineering.
“Almost a decade ago we started collaborating on problems related to biopharmaceutical manufacturing,” Lee said. “His expertise is complementary to that of our group: we tended to study the cells used to make therapeutic antibodies and he is expert in the purification of the therapeutic antibody itself. By working together, our students were able to identify some proteins that are especially difficult to purify out from certain biopharmaceutical manufacturing processes and we collaboratively developed strategies to address this. That collaborative work has garnered quite a bit of attention in the biopharmaceutical industry by solving a long-standing problem.”
Lee has been active in policy related to U.S. global competitiveness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has had the opportunity to work with a variety of individuals on Capitol Hill in recent years, including discussions around how to support the nation’s COVID response through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan.
Those conversations help to demonstrate the importance of good science communication.
“Scientists and engineers have nearly all of their training and professional development centered on how to communicate with peers and it's incredibly important to be effective in that regard,” Lee said. “However, one of the skills that I have been trying to work on is the ability to communicate technical concepts to a broad audience: from policy makers and business leaders to kids in schools and people in a variety of non-scientific careers. It's hard to find the words that convey a concept in a manner that is technically accurate but is simple to hear and understand by non-specialists. That said, the work our research group does, including the efforts recognized by this honor, provides many opportunities to try, and many times fail, to communicate effectively about our work with diverse individuals. I'm really fortunate to have those opportunities to continuously learn and improve.”
Kelvin Lee and Michael Harrington, “Porous Electrophoresis Sponges.” U.S. Patent 5,637,202. Issued 06/10/1997.
Kelvin Lee, Norman Relkin, and Erin Finehout, “Multiplexed Biomarkers for Monitoring the Alzheimer’s Disease State of a Subject.” U.S. Patent 9,335,331. Issued 05/10/2016.
Kelvin Lee and Stephanie Hammond, “Cofilin Knockdown Host Cells and Uses Thereof.” U.S. Patent 8,722,409. Issued 05/13/2014.
Kelvin Lee, Abraham Lenhoff, Kristin Valente, Nicholas Levy, and Yatin Gokarn, “Reduction of Lipase Activity in Product Formulation.” U.S. Patent 9,932,591. Issued 04/03/2018.
Kelvin Lee, Abraham Lenhoff, Kristin Valente, Nicholas Levy, and Yatin Gokarn, “Reduction of Lipase Activity in Product Formulation.” U.S. Patent 10,570,397. Issued 02/25/2020.
Kelvin Lee and Xiaolin Zhang. “Method to alter Chinese hamster ovary cell line stability.” U.S. Patent 11,124,772. Issued 9/21/2021.
UD’s NAI Fellows
Others from the UD community who have been named as fellows include:
Eleftherios (Terry) Papoutsakis, Unidel Eugene Du Pont Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, elected in 2020; Kristi Kiick, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering (2019); Yushan Yan, Distinguished Engineering Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and associate dean for research and entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering (2018); Dennis Prather, Engineering Alumni Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (2017); the late Richard Heck, a Nobel laureate and professor emeritus of chemistry at UD, and Norm Wagner, the Robert L. Pigford Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, both selected in 2015; Babatunde Ogunnaike, William L. Friend Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (2014); John Elias, professor of electrical and computer engineering and Wayne Westerman, who earned a doctoral degree in electrical and computer engineering at UD, both elected in 2013; and former UD President Patrick Harker (2012).
About the National Academy of Inventors
The National Academy of Inventors is a member organization comprising U.S. and international universities, governmental agencies and non-profit research institutes, with more than 4,000 individual inventor members and fellows spanning more than 250 institutions worldwide. It was founded in 2010 to recognize and encourage inventors with patents issued from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate, and mentor innovative students and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society. The NAI has a close partnership with the USPTO and is one of three honorific organizations, along with the National Medals and National Inventors Hall of Fame, working closely with the USPTO on many discovery and innovation support initiatives. The NAI publishes the multidisciplinary journal, Technology and Innovation.