Bright Ideas: Under Neufeldt, Spirit of Innovation Is Shining at CSUSM
By Brian Hiro
As a professor of biological sciences at Cal State San Marcos, Carlos Luna Lopez occasionally is approached by representatives of the scores of biotech companies in the region, seeking his scientific expertise.
Last fall, a biotech startup came to him with an idea for a product that sounded to Luna like one of great timeliness and potential value: a face mask that, rather than passively protecting the user like the N95s we all have become accustomed to, would more actively guard against COVID-19 by dispensing a drug into the user’s system. Luna had done research on drug delivery vehicles on a microscopic scale, so he was the right person to determine for the company if their bright idea was feasible.
During the fall 2021 semester, Luna applied for and received a CSUSM fellowship granting him a partial release from his teaching load to delve into the nitty-gritty of how a mask that’s essentially a self-contained nebulizer might operate, or whether it even could. In January, he began a two-year journey in which he is collaborating with student researchers to build prototypes and decipher thorny scientific puzzles. Depending on what he and the team discover, their research could serve as the launch point for a new device that could better protect people from diseases like COVID-19.
“Some companies are trying to advance face masks through the technology route, like, ‘Let’s put a microphone in it, or a headphone,’ ” Luna said. “Well, we can also advance them through biotechnology. We can add something that protects you at the molecular level. I think getting this idea out there is something that could be great for humanity.”
Dreaming up and researching innovative concepts is nothing new at CSUSM, of course. Since the arrival of President Ellen Neufeldt in 2019, however, the power and spirit of innovation at CSUSM has been harnessed like never before.
“There are a lot of innovative things happening on campus, and there have been for a lot of years,” said Sam Clarke, a management professor and the founding faculty director of entrepreneurship, who handed off the role to business faculty colleague Mark Monahan this summer.
“What the president has done is brought those to the forefront. We’ve seen them start to bubble up to the surface. Now it’s about: How can we leverage all these great things and, as a university, create a lot more value for those we interact with?”
The clearest physical manifestation of innovation at CSUSM, of course, is the Innovation Hub, a 2,800-square-foot space on the ground floor of the Extended Learning Building that officially opened to the public this spring. Featuring movable tables and chairs, a giant video wall (composed of nine separate flat-screen TVs) and a makerspace with state-of-the-art equipment, the Innovation Hub is designed to host classes and public events and generally be just what its name suggests – the hub of all the innovative ideas springing up across campus.
The Hub was built out thanks to a grant from The Conrad Prebys Foundation in 2021, and the remainder of the $500,000 gift from the San Diego nonprofit this year is allowing CSUSM to bolster the larger innovation ecosystem surrounding the physical space. The main portion of the more recent donation is funding a program called the faculty innovation fellows. The inaugural cohort, which includes Luna, involves five faculty members (one from each of CSUSM’s four colleges, plus the university library) who were selected to lead an entrepreneurial project while also serving as an innovation ambassador to other faculty.
Besides Luna’s face mask project, other areas of research for the fellows include mobile health clinics, climate science and social innovation. During their two-year tenure, each fellow is required to incorporate students and a community or industry partner into their work.
“The idea of the Innovation Hub is that it is the nexus where faculty, students and industry all come together so that they can be creative,” said Scott Gross, CSUSM’s associate vice president of industry partnerships. “We know that each of the five fellows’ projects will help us realize our goal of that nexus of faculty, students and industry.”
Working in concert with the faculty fellows at building on the culture of innovation at CSUSM are Clarke, the faculty director of entrepreneurship and Elinne Becket, a biology professor who was tapped last year to serve as faculty director of innovation. Both are ideal fits in their roles. Clarke is a management professor who specializes in entrepreneurship and has been involved in the founding of ventures in such fields as software, health benefits and consumer financing. Before joining academia in 2018, Becket was a scientist for an Orange County biotech, and at CSUSM she has helped prepare students for careers in the industry.
Now, as faculty representatives to the Innovation Hub, both are applying their particular skills in different ways. Becket’s charge is to coax more ideas, technologies and patentable inventions out of classrooms and labs, and to support students and faculty who are interested in developing those things. Clarke’s objective is to take those ideas and provide an outlet through commercialization.
“I always tell people, when you talk about starting a business, you have to have somebody who builds it and somebody who sells it,” Clarke said. “If you think about our roles, Elinne is looking at how we build stuff and I’m looking at how we sell stuff.”
Said Becket: “My expertise has always been on the back end, and also in bringing people together. My goal is to interface with students, faculty and industry, to bring them together in innovative activities and get ideas germinating. With Sam, it’s a really complementary relationship with some overlap for sure, especially if it’s a pet project that I’m super excited about.”
This spring, CSUSM hired Melvin Sen, a graduate student who’s pursuing a master’s degree in sociological practice, to serve as program specialist for the Innovation Hub and supplement the efforts of Clarke and Becket. Together with a student innovation team, the whole Hub group organized the inaugural CSUSM Startup Week in early May. The three-day event featured a seminar on such new technologies as cryptocurrency, blockchain and NFTs, as well as a student quick-pitch competition modeled after the popular reality show “Shark Tank.” The first edition of that contest, held last fall, produced a winner who has since started a company based on her idea.
Beyond hosting events for the campus and the community (in April, for example, more than 100 entrepreneurs gathered in the Hub for a startup series held by Innovate 78, a partnership among various North County cities), Clarke envisions the Hub being open to students to use the makerspace to test and build on ideas first conjured in the classroom or lab, or even to serve as headquarters for student startups as they continue to get support and mentorship from the university.
“It’s supposed to be flexible so that we can do as many things as we possibly can in the same space,” Clarke said. “The possibilities are really endless.”
The current push for more innovation at CSUSM originated in 2018, when Charles De Leone, a longtime physics professor with a well-earned status as an innovative teacher and researcher on campus, was approached about the potential for a space devoted to innovation in the Extended Learning Building being built across Barham Drive.
When Neufeldt came aboard in July 2019, the movement shifted into overdrive. During the early stages of her listening and learning tour, she met with De Leone and appointed him the original faculty director of innovation (the role he later ceded to Becket). Clarke was recruited as director of entrepreneurship. De Leone and Sharon Hamill, then the chair of the Academic Senate, convened a committee of faculty members that met almost weekly that fall and produced a report that would serve as the guiding document for innovation at CSUSM.
“What it envisioned was an innovation ecosystem on our campus,” said De Leone, who’s now dean of the Office of Graduate Studies and Research. “This involved all the partners on our campus, and critically our community members, because the Innovation Hub should really act as a gateway by which our ideas can get out into the community and the community’s needs and ideas can get to us.”
Critical to Neufeldt’s perspective on innovation is that it dovetails with her passion for, and CSUSM’s mission of, diversity and inclusion. Innovation should not be the dominion merely of science students in a lab, and entrepreneurship should not be the province merely of business students. Rather, both should be open to any student with an idea and the willingness to pursue it. And today’s students should be encouraged to try to devise innovative solutions to social dilemmas; for instance, the innovation challenge through the Hub this fall will be focused on housing insecurity.
“The president brought a vision of how this could fundamentally alter our student’s view of themselves and what they’re capable of,” De Leone said. “She saw that when a student has an idea and they take charge of it and move it forward and make something happen with it, that gives them an incredibly powerful sense of agency that will likely stick with them for the rest of their lives.”
Here’s a case in point. Close to two decades ago, De Leone had a physics student named Giancarlo Vallejo, a Peru native whose parents moved to the United States to give their children a better life. Like many CSUSM students, Vallejo’s road to a degree was circuitous and rutted with potholes. Between the start of his college career in 2001 and his graduation in 2018, he served six years in the Marines, slowly readjusted to civilian life, and spent some time working in Orange County.
When Vallejo finally did graduate with a degree in biological sciences, he did so with an innovative spirit. In 2020, he founded a company, Proper Cell Biotechnologies, with a partial goal to research cures and vaccines related to COVID-19. It was his startup, in fact, that came to Luna last fall with the proposal for a mask that would dispense drugs to help ward off the disease.
As Luna strives to determine whether he can help Vallejo turn his vision into reality, Luna is enlisting the service of several students who, as Luna and Vallejo were, are underrepresented minorities who might not be conditioned to think of themselves as innovative or entrepreneurial.
“As first-generation students, they might be thinking, ‘What job can I even have?’ ” Luna said. “I want them to feel inspired, to shoot for the stars. I have this biotechnology class, and one of the exercises is to create your own company. I tell my students, ‘You can be the next person to create a startup.’
“And with this mask, I tell them that this is something you can see. I love biology, but if it’s too molecular, sometimes it’s hard to see your result. With this, you can create something and you can actually hold it. That gets them really excited.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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