UTM researchers two of U of T’s Inventors of the Year

Friday, June 7, 2013 - 2:56pm
Lanna Crucefix

For computer scientist Daniel Wigdor, standardized shipping containers are an invention that changed the world. Cancer researcher (and Isle of Bute native) Patrick Gunning leans towards the telephone, but insists that the greatest inventor was definitely Scottish.

Students may one day learn about containers and telephones along with the work of Wigdor and Gunning, who were recently named two of the University of Toronto’s Inventors of the Year.

Daniel Wigdor (in suit, to the right of the award) at the Inventors of the Year ceremony“Invention is the natural next step from research and innovation,” says Wigdor, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences. “It’s fabulous to see the university explicitly acknowledge the importance of moving research into the commercial sphere.”

Wigdor, who came to UTM after stints at Microsoft, Harvard University and Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, was recognized with co-inventor Ricardo Jota for creating the input processing unit (IPU). The IPU reduces the lag time between a person’s use of a digital device such as a smartphone and the device’s response. Shrinking this lag time, or latency, means a better and more accurate user experience.

“There’s a real divide between research happening at universities and what is eventually being incorporated into interfaces coming out of high-tech firms,” says Wigdor. “We can have immediate impact by commercializing our research using patents, and creating start-ups to use those patents.”

IPU is currently being developed and marketed through Tactual Labs in partnership with U of T.

To keep the invention pipeline open, Wigdor believes in fostering an open and collaborative lab environment where people feel comfortable making mistakes. He encourages students to take leadership roles in promoting their research.

“When research is commercialized, it’s a great contribution to the economy,” he says. “Students from my lab are involved in research and when they leave with their degrees, they’re coming out right into a start-up. Instead of joining some larger firm, they’re defining their own jobs.”

Like Wigdor, Gunning, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical & Physical Sciences, felt humbled at being included as one of U of T’s inventors. “There are so many inventive people at this university that it was quite an honour to be chosen,” he says.

Patrick Gunning (holding award) at the Inventors of the Year ceremonyGunning’s work in cancer research led him to the creation of a highly effective inhibitor that kills cancer cells by stopping STAT3, a protein that regulates the tumour process. The inhibitor, which Gunning calls a “drug-like” molecule, also evades the usual in vivo degradation to which inhibitors are subject.

Even more astonishing, the drug is the first of its kind that can be taken orally and remain effective.  Six patents and multiple awards have already resulted from his research.

“I think an inventor is someone who can first make connections to come up with a novel solution and then take it to the application stage,” says Gunning. “Invention requires a blend of creativity mixed with science. It also needs a large entrepreneurial streak to transform basic into applied research and bring inventions out to help people around the world.”

Gunning and Wigdor are both appreciative of UTM’s support for scientists. “UTM encourages basic research and facilitates the people doing it,” says Gunning.

“Innovative research, exemplified by the work of Patrick Gunning and Daniel Wigdor, lies at the heart of the mission of UTM,” says Ulrich Krull, Vice-Principal, Research and a professor in chemical and physical sciences.

“It is through research that is led by such creative individuals that we train future leaders, who will contribute to their chosen fields. Our professors encourage students to develop innovative ideas and then teach how to approach these problems creatively and persistently, to develop solutions for challenges faced by Canada and the world.”