UIC Innovation Celebration honors researchers’ successful discoveries

On Sept. 15, the University of Illinois Chicago Office of Technology Management held its third annual Innovation Celebration, which seeks to encourage and advance UIC’s role as a driver of new technologies and economic growth by honoring commercially successful innovations that got their start at UIC.

The event, the first since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, recognized professors Ramaswamy Kalyanasundaram and Donald Waller from the UIC College of Medicine as the UIC Inventor of the Year for 2020 and 2021, respectively.

This year’s keynote speaker was Katherine Atkinson, chief commercial officer of Evofem Biosciences, the San Diego biotech company that licensed Waller’s invention — the first new contraceptive to be introduced to the United States in 20 years. The contraceptive is now sold as Phexxi. 

“The CEO of our company, Saundra Pelletier, came into the company long after the discovery that we had licensed in the early 2000s,” said Atkinson, referring to Waller’s invention. “When she heard that the company had licensed this technology, she was like, ‘OK, we’re going to stop everything else that we’re doing, and we’re going to focus on this,’ because she thought it was so revolutionary.” 

Waller developed the contraceptive, a nonhormonal vaginal gel, in response to women’s needs for more options for birth control, in particular nonhormonal, spontaneous birth control. He and his collaborators struggled to find funding for their initial work, but eventually were supported by the Rockefeller and Packard Foundations, and later, the national government of Brazil. Licensing his patent to Evofem and taking it to market was an even lengthier ordeal, with multiple clinical trials and regulatory hurdles. 

“If I were to have an assessment of what it takes to get a product to market, I should have put ‘marketing and production’ in great big letters, because that’s what really allows the product to move forward,” Waller said. “You can have the best product in the world, but if it’s sitting on your shelf, and you can’t get it out to the manufacturer or get somebody to sell it, it’s not going to be that useful to anybody. So the marketing and production is extremely important.” 

Sales of Phexxi have grown steadily since the product’s launch in September 2020, reaching $6 million in the second quarter of 2022. Atkinson said the third quarter numbers, which have yet to be released, are even higher. 

Also celebrated at the event was Kalyanasundaram, who was previously honored in an online ceremony for winning the 2020 Inventor of the Year Award. Kalyanasundaram developed a vaccine for lymphatic filariasis, a disfiguring parasitic disease that affects 120 million people globally. Kalyanasundaram relentlessly advocated for a vaccine to the World Health Organization as countries around the world were unable to control the disease using standard medical treatments.  

As Kalyanasundaram’s work developed, he discovered that the parasite that causes the disease has 80% genetic similarity to the parasite that causes heartworm. Now, as his human vaccine enters a phase 2 clinical trial with the WHO, a pharmaceutical partner is helping him to bring it to the veterinary market. 

In the past decade, innovations at UIC have brought six new commercial products to market that have thus far generated $6 billion in revenue, according to Suseelan Pookote, senior director of the Office of Technology Management. This is in addition to hundreds of patents and licenses that are still in development. 

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