SMART Wheels: An interesting model that grows stronger as academic research is connected with commercial success

Recently I visited with Johnelle Brooks of the SMART Wheels portion of the Senior Smart initiative, which is multidisciplinary research to foster independence for senior citizens. Johnelle investigates the relationship between how well drivers of different ages think they can see and drive in different visually challenging conditions as compared to how well they actually perform.

Senior Wheels is a very interesting academic center working on a big societal problem. Johnelle has developed a simulator for the elderly to assess and improve their driving skills, as a result of physical disabilities, brain diseases, etc.. (All of us will be there soon enough. There currently 70+ million Americans alone over 50 years old). There are other applications, such as wounded warriors returning home.

Johnelle is working at the intersection of health care, automotive and information technologies. This is an iPod type of value creation, where there isn't the invention of anything new as much as there is the recombination of existing components in a novel way. Most transformational innovations are like this. She is pioneering an entirely new market that does not currently exist.

Johnelle has an office at the CU-ICAR campus and one at Greenville Hospital. Her research is co-located with industry, which is an example of of what a 21st century land grant university should be. Her work benefits from frequent observations of practitioners using it in the real world with real patients. She also collaborates with Clemson colleagues in automotive and IT disciplines.

Johnelle engages a number of Clemson students as interns and graduate assistants. Their education extends out of the classroom into the direct involvement with her research. She has employed an number of students after their graduation. One, a nurse, has become an critical collaborator on her research team. We hear from some quarters that universities should get back to their core mission of education. This is an excellent example where hands on involvement in research in a real world environment is a core part of a student's education.

If this simulator is effective at GHS, there are 5,000 community hospitals in the US, so the market opportunity is big. She has a relationship with a small company who is helping to commercialize the simulator. As they are able to raise the capital to scale-up the number of simulators, the data generated will lead to more publishable research results, which will help enhance her academic reputation and attract more research funding. As her academic reputation grows, it will attract more interest from hospitals, and thus more commercial opportunities for the company she is working with.

This demonstrates is a very powerful kind of synergy where the success of the academic research leads to a commercially viable product, and the commercial success of the product creates a base of data and relationships that enhances the academic research. I am beginning to see more and more opportunities for this type of synergy between academic research and commercial success.

Not all academic research will benefit from commercial synergy like this, but there is plenty of low hanging fruit that does. Many of the elements necessary for Johnelle's research to be commercially successful exist, but they are not well coordinated. There is also a huge opportunity for our universities and their partners to realize significant benefits by coordinating the delivery of resources to enhance the growth of both academic research and its commercialization in South Carolina.

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