For two years technology leaders at Johns Hopkins University, the nation's No. 1 winner of federal research funds, have sought to build a venture-capital program. For while university research continues to attract support, commercialization of its discoveries seems to happen somewhere else.
Now, the university and its associated health-care system have found partners to help change that and help build the kind of high-tech infrastructure that can be seen around Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University or in California's Silicon Valley. Constellation Holdings Inc. of Baltimore, 3i Ventures Corp. of Boston and Whiting-Turner Construction Co. have joined Hopkins' team in a new venture, Triad Investors Corp., to fund the necessary development that helps move a researcher's ideas into the marketplace.
The university and health system each contributed $1.5 million and the companies have added $2.25 million to Triad's fund. That brings the total starting capital to $5.25 million. Plans call for boosting that, but already it is enough to support several major projects:
* A low-vision enhancement system based on a NASA-Wilmer Eye Institute research program. Polaroid Corp. and Walter Dorwin Teague Associates have already joined in developing a prototype for devices that could benefit 2.5 million visually impaired Americans.
* Microporous metallic membranes developed by a Hopkins engineering professor, which use a patented technique to generate honeycomb-like structures in metals. Triad-sponsored applied research will help apply these membranes to uses in food processing, pharmaceutical production and automotive uses.
* Composite ash metals, another Hopkins engineering discovery, can produce new materials while reducing waste products from coal-burning power plants. Three new product lines have been invented which use fly-ash as a base. Patents are pending, with several prototypes under evaluation for commercial potential.
Johns Hopkins University, established in 1876 as the first research university in the Western Hemisphere, has long been recognized as an economic magnet. Last year, it spent $750 million on research. Moving to the next step, commercialization of its discoveries, will bring new benefits to the area as Triad-supported companies grow. It is a development to be cheered as Baltimore moves closer to the high-tech future we all see coming.