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Diving Into I3R with Ranu Jung
Episode 19826th October 2022 • Be EPIC Podcast • Matt Waller
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This week on the podcast Matt sits down with Ranu Jung, Founding Executive Director and Endowed Chair for the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I3R) at the University of Arkansas. In the episode they discuss what I3R is from the brand new building with an architectural design inspired by the forest around us to the innovation clusters that the institute is focused on. The institute will concentrate efforts in innovation in food and data science, biosciences and bioengineering of metabolism, material sciences and integrative systems neuroscience. The core mission of the institute is in problem solving to drive societal impact in these key areas with resources available to company partners including physical resources as well as advisory and commercialization resources.

Learn more about I3R: https://i3r.uark.edu/

Transcripts

Ranu Jung:

Oh no, it's really going to be if I could dream up this dream and we could all dream up this dream. This would impact the world.

Matt Waller:

Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the Be Epic podcast. I have with me today. Ranu Jung, who is the founding executive director and endowed chair for the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research, which we call I cubed R. And that's the topic of today. She's also a distinguished professor of biomedical engineering, and Associate Vice Chancellor here at the University of Arkansas, she has a very successful research and track record. And she has over 12 patents I believe. So Ranu, thank you so much for- for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Ranu Jung:

Matt, thank you so much for having me on this, your be epic podcast, it is my honor.

Matt Waller:

Well, you know, Ranu, of course, you were hired, we wanted to find the best person in the country to come on board and run this jewel of a institute that we have called I cubed r, as I mentioned earlier, and, of course, it was created with this $194.7 million grant, from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. And it is it creates all kinds of opportunities for the University of Arkansas to really take a great move forward in terms of research expenditure, research commercialization, and really just being a big input to society for advancement in many different ways. So congratulations that you were the one that was picked to run it.

Ranu Jung:

Well, thank you, I'm pleased that you all gave me a chance, because this is quite an opportunity.

Matt Waller:

And I know that this $194 million gift was divided up into we've basically got the programs, if you will, of the center, we've got the the institute's building, which is under construction right now. Could you could you tell us just a little bit, even about the building that they're they're doing, right now?

Ranu Jung:

Sure, as you said, this is an absolutely landmark gift. And it really, you know, it shows the vision of how this whole region is being grown. And, you know, we talk a lot about the quality of life issues, and how that has changed in this area. And this gift to the University gives us an opportunity to really become part of that dream of moving this Northwest Arkansas region in particular. And then of course, the expansion of that to other areas of having an impact in the growth of the whole area. So as you said, the gift is divided into different parts. One of them is for the support of this building. And so the building's overall architectural design is inspired by the forests around us. So it is got a lot of cross laminated timber inside skylights above. So think about light filtering through the forest canopy down below. And to me when I think about that, it also says enlightenment for a future, you know, so it's not just maybe the architects didn't think of it that way. But that's the way I think about it that okay, we have the rays of enlightenment coming right down on us, as we are going to be working inside that building.

Matt Waller:

It sounds like you're not only a scientist, but also an artist. That's a good way to think of it.

Ranu Jung:

Well, it has been really been a pleasure. You know, dialoguing with architects, I've spent a lot of time with them, and just seeing their vision and actually a very comprehensive approach with which this building has been put together. A lot of faculty have given input into it and to what it should be. But the building is really designed to integrate different areas of, of, of inquiry to be brought together. And also it's a collaborative of people and collaborative of spaces. So one of the things we're talking about is it's not about my lab or your lab, it is about project spaces that bring people together. And those projects spaces have functionalities built into them. And as you all have probably heard about it already that there are innovation clusters that we have talked about would build this institute, food and data science, biosciences and bioengineering of metabolism, material sciences, integrative systems neuroscience. So putting all these innovation clusters together, we wanted a building that will integrate these together so that they are not siloed. But they're all pulled together. And this will offer resources that are available for us to think about new technologies, new research, new ways of thinking about the future and bringing it to the now and bringing people not just from within the university, but most importantly, being able to bring our industry and business partners in place. So there's, you know, technical spaces that are going to be there, everything from addressing human health, to looking at, you know, cell culture, so maybe we will do cell cultured meets here, for all we know, but also material sciences, and a big immersion lab where we will be able to look at extended reality. So it is additive manufacturing. So this all these different components that are in the building, and then there are collaborative spaces. And there's a beautiful atrium in the middle, that is kind of ties this outside core together into the central hall. And so I think it's going to be a gorgeous building on on Dickson, just an extension of the Fayetteville, I think it's going to be the art corridor will be the other end of it, you know.

Matt Waller:

It's really exciting. And, of course, there's so much going on in Northwest Arkansas around science and commercialization entrepreneurship. And the clusters you have are so intriguing. So interesting, the food and data science, material science, bioengineering and metabolism and neuroscience. They're all such promising areas for research, technology, commercialization, and just advancement of society. So you mentioned earlier that, you know, it's this facility isn't just for researchers, but also companies that might be working. So let's suppose there's a company that moves to town. And they're doing work on something related that maybe crosses metabolism and neuroscience and data science, and they don't have some of the expertise they need. And they don't have some of the equipment they need. How do they work with you on this?

Ranu Jung:

Yeah, thank you for asking that. Because at the core of it, the Institute is about problem solving. So what we are looking to say is, what is your problem, whoever is client centric, so let's say this is the company that you mentioned. So they have a problem, or that they want to solve and they are going to have some product, or they want to study a product that they've already made. And they want to know it can be verified that it is doing what it is doing, or it can be validated against whatever impact that they want to do. So the institute, the way it is designed, is that we would take this, take that problem set from that company, we would talk with them about what their needs are. And then if they need physical needs or resources, then we could offer them capabilities that are available in the building. Let's say they want to prototype something, and it's a device. So we would have additive manufacturing, that might be an electronic shop, there may be a characterization shop. Let's say that this is a device that is going to go through at some point into a human implant. Well you need to do certain amount of animal studies, you can do those in this in this building. And you could also then verify, yes, your technology meant all of that. But we will give them some support for regulatory guidance also, of things early on in your business development of what would it mean to take your technology through the pathway to get approvals, you made the prototype, we have made agreements with external IRB so that we can, they can conduct their studies under a master agreement. And then also with external CROs so they can do monitoring. So we're doing this master agreements that the Institute is putting in place. So the company themselves don't have to go get all these agreements in place. And then they could come back to the Institute and say, hey, now we have done those, we want to run a clinical study in your human studies labs. So you could go the entire pathway, not in the same way in the case of food industry pathway, right. So there may be certain things they want to do at the very basic science level. You want to grow cell cultured meat, so we want to look at some of the cellular level things. We will do some additional parts of the development part here. Maybe we want to come up with new ways of looking at a manufacturing line in which that meat product is going to be going through. So we will have certain amounts of robotics capabilities here. So we combine all of that, at the same time, we are at the university, we have all the partners as University of Arkansas. So the institute, you're not just tapping into the university, you're tapping into all of the connectivity that institute has, how would you do it, some of it would be as a fee for service with our advanced technology team members, some of it, maybe you need some more things other than just giving us a part to make. And in that case, you would engage with the Institute faculty, or Institute researchers to grow your grow your product or think, you know, do some intellectual capability, or you might just tie in with us to, you know, tie into our network that is there with other faculty and of course, students can be tapped in also.

Matt Waller:

So not only will this institute then help commercialize research, it will also help companies move forward with their inventions as well.

Ranu Jung:

Absolutely, Absolutely, it is not just about basic science research coming out of the faculty, it really is to make sure we are part of the puzzle of the economic development. And that development is not possible unless we are very closely tied in with our commercial and business partners. And one thing we have been saying is that we are not just about taking it to the shelf, not just placing it in a clinic, but actually deploying it so that we have societal impact. So once you start thinking about deployment, you may have to think about market analysis, you may have to think about behavioral analysis of people, why do they accept certain things or not so while that might be not be a large component, but there will be a small component of the institute, looking at that, we might be thinking at financial platforms that allow you to, you know, to take your technology that you draw up to actually get it deployed, through the communities where it is actually accepted, and it is used. So that's really closes our circle of saying, find the problem, get the solution, design it, develop it, and then most importantly, deploy it.

Matt Waller:

Yeah, and you you know, I caught too, you were mentioning, you also are going to have the capability to help companies navigate complicated regulatory environment that they might face.

Ranu Jung:

Yes, so we will have a certain number of staff in within the within the institute, who can talk with them early on to say this is what we see is your regulatory pathway. And these are the things you might need, we can guide them through a certain to a certain level. And if you don't need an external CRO to come in, which are much more expensive. We've already made agreements with them. So you can come into a master agreement through an institution which is called institutional agreement with us. And then you tie into this larger CRO that can we can bring in to help you with the additional parts. And of course, you know, we have other components at the university, our tech ventures groups, our OEI partners, that if they need that kind of business guidance, then the university already has other other, you know, other portals through which they could get guidance. We have already done some first in human studies for newly developed class three medical devices. So we have some background in that already. So the goal is to make sure that we have sufficient members in our what I'm calling advanced technology teams within the institute that can offer these services.

Matt Waller:

Well, this is so exciting. I mean, it's so clear that this is a very important catalyst for entrepreneurial and economic development around these innovation clusters. And it seems like such good timing when you consider the fact that we have the Alice Walton, Whole Health School of Medicine that's going to be coming online. In just a couple of years. We have the Cleveland Clinic, moving to town, we have UAMS opening facilities up here that will be ready for research. So it seems like boy the timing of all this was just incredible.

Ranu Jung:

Yes, we are very fortunate. And I think that's why I have to go back and say this is what was so exciting to me, just hearing about what is going on. So that's the medical sector which is growing extensively. We also know we have a very, very strong food sector. That is growth that is also expanding. There is lots of clear data saying food and health are coinciding together. You know, we are also doing a lot with mobility in this area. So while we may not be the leaders in mobility, whether there are other groups at the university, our deployment part, the way the institute comes into place, we would like to be able to say, see how the institute could help in that. And I even think about the chips act that just came about, right. And so if you start thinking about different technologies, and how that might tie in, think, you know, 10 years later, where the university is doing other efforts in those areas, and how we might at some point converge all of this together, to really make this a place where you can have your manufacturing, you can have your, your you guys are the supply chain gurus, you know, so taking things all the way all the way through. But it is both the economics, it's all the data behind it. But it is also making products and moving companies here. So we give them the ecosystem that they so cherish when they are in the Boston area, or they are in, you know, in the Bay Area, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot be growing that ecosystem here, where you don't have to ship things to different parts of the country. But you're right here in the heartland, you know, putting all of that structure together, and we have hidden gems that should not be hidden anymore. We need the shining diamond out, you know.

Matt Waller:

Before our meeting, just for fun, I went to Crunchbase, and I entered metabolic or I don't remember exactly, I think I wrote- metabolism, because you know, in CrunchBase, you can see early stage companies and their funding levels. And and I was surprised Ranu, how many were involved in really pretty sophisticated, you know, metabolic related types of, you know, entrepreneurship. But, you know, it seems like it's somehow those companies are going to have to learn about what you all are doing.

Ranu Jung:

Well, we have to learn from you all, we have to learn about marketing you know. Going back to this metabolic stuff, right. So one of the things obviously, if you look at an institute that is so broad like this, there are other Institute's that are just focused on brain how, then you have a single thing. Here, we don't have one single thing to talk about, and we are agnostic really to, you know, a disease or something that we are not a Health Institute, we are really a solutions institute that is looking at problems that go back to the same thing, what is your problem? How can we solve it? How can we make the solution and get it deployed? We are driven by that purpose societal impact. So going back to your metabolic metab- metabolism thing you talked about, right? So let's think about the grand challenge of metabolic health. All of us are different. Each one's DNA is different. Our stress levels are different, we sleep differently, all of that, right? How do we promote wellness, food, exercise two- two ecosystems that are really strong, and what we are working on to improve the quality of life here, and are growing the industrial base for all of the food stuff. And also, I mean, think about all the things the GORP program that we are pulling out of the collaborative, all of the bike culture, the you know, the mountain biking, you know, the international mountain biking mecca to be put in here, right? So if you think about food, and exercise, looking at that, to promote good health, sustain it. And then of course, if things go wrong, which unfortunately, we have a lot of that, not just here in Arkansas, in the heartland, in the United States, across the world, where our metabolic health is not okay, of all the interventions that would have to be done, we can think of, there are so many problems and so many solutions to be created, both in different kinds of resource settings. Right. And so I think it ties in all of that together. And so I think that is, that is the beauty of what this institute, we hope is going to be able to do. And this region is going to be able to show that when we put things together and integrate together, then we are able to move the needle, you know.

Matt Waller:

Yeah, well, I mean, two things, stuck out to me about what you said, one, you're looking at the problems and trying to be a solution to the problem, which is what entrepreneurs do. So in some ways, you're taking very entrepreneurial approach to this. And the second thing that stood out to me is just the idea of looking for where all of these areas cross these clusters, because, you know, research shows that most of the biggest and the highest number of innovations come from crossing things that aren't usually crossed. So that's it's interesting that both of those things were built into the DNA, if you will, of this institute.

Ranu Jung:

Absolutely. I think, you know, maybe this is a terminology that comes out of the business world, we are going to tackle wicked problems you know that are not simple to answer. No one group can do it. But if you make a dent in those, you really have major, long sustainable impacts.

Matt Waller:

Yes, going after wicked problems that that will make a big difference, no question about it. Ranu, you know, is this just for Northwest Arkansas? Or is it broader than that?

Ranu Jung:

Oh, no, it's really going to be if if I could dream of this dream, and we could all dream of this dream, this would impact the world. Think about it. You know, we have a region where we are in a unique situation, we have got, you know, a land grant university whose mission is to impact the people, we have got a growing ecosystem of technologies, companies, etc, we have some of the strongest philanthropic in the world philanthropic families right here, who are investing in this area, to see economic strength, quality of life improvement. So we have this beautiful, beautiful convergence of multiple groups that can come together to grow things, we are a testbed, but we are not the kernel, that does not expand, I think of it as a growing field of impact out from the heartland, to the country, across globally.

Matt Waller:

So the other issue I wanted to bring up is, even though 194.7 million is a lot of money. That money's been deployed for all kinds of things, the building the people, equipment, et cetera, et cetera. And I know these labs are really expensive. So I would imagine that, for this to be self sufficient, and sustainable, if you will, you're going to have to have a business model that generates a good amount of revenue, as well, is that right?

Ranu Jung:

Absolutely. I think we have to think of ourselves as a very well invested in startup. And if we think about it in that manner, you say, we have a great seed round, and we have the ability to, you know, start well, but we really have to make sure that we have got and thought through what will be our different revenue sources? Uh, strategically, yes, grants can give us one set of income from, say, the federal government. But what are the different ways in which we might do- some maybe long term if companies get formed, we invest in companies, there is equity coming back, that's a long term approach. Maybe we will get those. There may be other ways in which we might be able to get revenue sources to do things, we have to think very entrepreneurially, to say, how are we going to get the right revenues, to grow our effort, and to most importantly, sustain our efforts, so that we can give back we can be the solution center that we are designed and are expected to be.

Matt Waller:

So if I were an entrepreneur, and I had a company, like that was really focused on metabolic health. But it also used a lot of capabilities from data science and neuroscience. And I was forming the company and I was aware of I cubed R, then in creating my ask, for say- say, I was already formed, and I was getting ready to go for a Series A venture funding, I would probably want to build into my budget money so that I can spend it at I cubed R to advance my technology to where it could be mark and, you know, actually realized in the market.

Ranu Jung:

Yes. And what we're doing is setting up the structure, so that you could be a initial startup, you could be an innovator, you submit your proposal to us. We look at your proposal, not every project we might be able to take, but we look at it, we say yes, we have the capabilities to offer you resources to do it, staff to support it. And then we would give you back a work package. And that work package would have both information about our resources and capabilities, as well as what will it cost to do this entire package through and if we get it right and we have all of this which is what we're setting up It would be a good experience because it would go from submission portal to billing, all in one way with milestones and deliverables.

Matt Waller:

Well Ranu, this is so exciting. And I'm so glad that you were willing to move to Arkansas to to run I cubed R. We definitely needed you and your expertise. And it's really just exciting to see what kinds of an impact this is going to have on society over the next couple of decades.

Ranu Jung:

Thank you, Matt. It has been my pleasure. And it is quite an adventure every day seems to be opening up new opportunities and new adventures, and it is going to be a team effort, a conversion team effort.

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