Ex-scientist takes inventing to corporate world

APL official transfers technology into business

September 25, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

More than a decade ago, Wayne E. Swann traded in his lab coat for a suit and tie.

He had spent years in the laboratory, creating products and technologies. But Swann the scientist and inventor was ready to ease into a new role - as businessman and liaison to the corporate world.

Today, Swann, 47, is director of technology transfer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel. It is a job he started when the new technology transfer department was formed in July 1999, and with it comes the responsibility of encouraging innovation among his staff members and turning new products into businesses.

"We want to spin off as many companies as we can that make sense," Swann said.

APL is a division of the Johns Hopkins University, where more than 1,700 scientists and engineers work under tight security doing research and developing products and technology. Much of the technology is developed for the government, including navigational satellites and Tomahawk missiles. And much of the work is so secret that it is classified even for workers at the laboratory.

The technology transfer office brings an additional mission to the lab. In Swann's year at APL, inventions have been folded into the creation of four local companies, and Swann has also initiated a handful of programs to break the barrier between scientist and corporations.

He set up three new means of funding for scientists: small technology transfer grants, prototype grants and business development grants. He has also started activities such as the Invention of the Year award and Patents and Pizza, a seminar that honors inventors who have been issued patents, and he teaches scientists about patent law.

Last month, the Maryland Technology Development Corp. launched a program to promote technology transfer in the state through its research labs. APL signed on as the first partner in the program.

"Wayne's principal task, and he appears to be doing that, is to set up an appropriate technology transfer office, properly staffed and oriented toward trying to optimize some of the inventions," said Ted Poehler, vice provost for research at Hopkins. "You sort of have to market inside and market outside ... and bring the two parties together and you have a deal."

Swann came to APL's tech transfer office after more than a dozen years at the University of Maryland, where he worked as a technology liaison between the school and companies. But it was a variety of experiences throughout the region that landed Swann at the university.

He grew up in Dundalk, with family sprinkled around East Baltimore. His father was a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel Corp. and would paint and sculpt in the basement when he came home at night.

As a young student, science was one of the subjects Swann liked best - though he never played favorites to any particular branch. "When I was taking a physics class, I liked physics," he recalled. "When I was taking chemistry, I liked chemistry. When I was taking biology, I liked biology."

He also has an artistic side. At Towson State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in natural sciences in 1979, Swann replicated a photograph of an East Baltimore rowhouse. The painting hangs in the foyer of his Clarksville home. "It's one of the things I'm most proud of," he said.

After college, Swann took a night job at W.R. Grace and Co., working with uranium at the company's nuclear research facility. "It was very much the basic, entry-level, nobody-else-wants-this job," he said.

He soon moved on to the biochemistry department and earned five patents, developing plastics. In 1981, he took a job at Genex Corp., a genetic engineering company in Gaithersburg. There, he said, he was the company's first research scientist without a doctorate, and he helped make phenylalanine and aspartic acid, the two main components of aspartame, an artificial sweetner.

In his last years at Genex, Swann eased into the marketing and corporate development side of science, working part time to market inventions and eventually doing it as a full-time job.

He moved to the University of Maryland in 1986 as the first executive director of the office of technology liaison, which protects, licenses and markets technology. He plays a similar role at APL as director of technology transfer.

At APL, his days begin about 8 or 8:30 a.m. and are filled with meetings, meetings and more meetings until about 6:30 or 7 p.m. (or 5 p.m. on days he plays golf).

If he's not on the golf course during his spare time, Swann can be spotted at Camden Yards or working in his yard. He did all of the landscaping outside his Howard County home, using 1,800 bricks, 9 tons of gravel and 19 tons of flagstone.

"My wife says I like to build things," Swann said.

The trait has spilled over into his work as well. Under Swann's direction, APL's technology transfer office has reached about a dozen licensing agreements for its scientists' inventions and played a role in building four new companies.

Last month, the lab announced a joint licensing agreement with Sykesville-based Sphere Corp. to develop technology that would give Internet users a secure and private channel to conduct online transactions. To market the product, Sphere is launching GuardedProfile Corp., a company in which APL will have an equity position.

APL also spun off emDevices Inc., a start-up company developing technology to read wireless data from Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.