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Wyss annual retreat showcases disruptive innovation, accelerating momentum

With 2014 almost in the rearview, the Wyss Institute has fueled a rapid uptick in the number of translational technologies being propelled into real world applications within the last year, as was evident by the presentation of the year’s highlights during the Institute’s Sixth Annual Retreat. The Retreat was held November 17 at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center and was attended by roughly 600 members of the Institute community.

“We don’t work in a linear way, we blur boundaries and stay at the leading edge of technology translation,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., describing the Wyss culture as he addressed the audience comprising Wyss faculty, staff, scientists and collaborators. “What we’ve really developed is an engine for disruptive innovation.”

Six years ago the Wyss Institute began as a risky start up. It is now a multidisciplinary institute that is an engine for disruptive innovation.

Just six years after opening its doors to researchers who share a passion and a vision for developing technology that can have near-impact results in the real world, the momentum has already pushed the Wyss translation engine into full gear. The Institute has generated over 950 patent filings and more than 500 reports of invention, with almost 30 patents granted. To date, the Institute has also churned out 17 licensing agreements and nine startup companies are commercializing the new technologies.

“We’re on the edge of chaos,” said Ingber, describing the Wyss model of research, which allows for open-ended idea generation before concepts are refined and prototypes developed. “Innovation happens where chaos and order collide.”

In the past year alone, Wyss scientists have developed a generator that is powered by bacterial spores that expand and contract like actuators; swarm robots that use collective artificial intelligence to build structures and self organize without a central command system; biological inks that can be used with a 3D printer to “bioprint” living tissue constructs; genetically-engineered E. coli bacteria that can record and report the biochemistry of the intestines; DNA devices that can evade the body’s immune system to carry out chemical or mechanical tasks in vivo; a non-invasive laser therapy that triggers dental stem cells to develop into teeth; self folding and activating robots that assemble from printed materials; protein-engineered biofilms that can clean up pollution, manufacture pharmaceutics, or fabricate textiles; large DNA crystals that can be built with precisely prescribed shapes and depths; a molecular probe that can measure the forces a cell exerts; a method for embedding synthetic gene networks on simple paper; programmable gene expressions regulators that can operate in vivo or in vitro; a computer model that accurately predicts the behavior of fusion-protein drug therapies; new insights into how stem cell development can be controlled and programmed; minimally-invasive 3D injectable vaccines that can recruit and activate immune cells in vivo to fight cancer, HIV, or Ebola; and precise genome editing technology for use in the development of human therapeutics.

This still frame from an animation created by Wyss Institute Staff Scientist Charles Reilly shows depiction of a fertilized egg about to undergo its first cellular division. Reilly’s animations use algorithms to not only depict but also predict how molecules and cells interact, using a data feedback loop. Credit: Charles Reilly/Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The retreat was also a platform for the Wyss community to connect with each other and spawn new collaborative projects based off those interactions, and to learn more about still-emerging technologies that are developing inside the Institute. For example, Wyss Institute Staff Scientist Charles Reilly presented a short film during the retreat that depicted the start of an organism’s life at the molecular and cellular level. Reilly joined the Institute earlier this year and combines his experience in the film industry with his Ph.D in biochemistry to create beautiful and accurate animations of biology. Reilly’s animations use algorithms to produce predictive computer animations that use a feedback data loop to help scientists understand the movements of life in never-before-seen ways on a cellular and molecular level. His film screening has already piqued the interest of several other Wyss researchers who now hope to exchange experimental data and animation algorithms with Reilly to make even more precise simulations of biological mechanisms.

Most importantly, the year 2014 has shown that the Institute’s disruptive model of organic collaboration and exploration is truly making an impact in the realization of new technologies.

“I think all of you should be proud; you should be proud of what happened today, and what has happened the last six years,” remarked Hansjörg Wyss, Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist, at the day’s closing. In 2008, he made a $125 million gift to Harvard University to found the Wyss Institute – which at the time was the largest gift ever given to Harvard. In 2013, he doubled his gift to $250 million to continue support of the Institute’s efforts. “I feel extremely fortunate that my initial expectation and concept to create a new multi-disciplinary institute…has proven to be successful.”

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