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University of Tennessee Recognized for Technologies that Protect Lives from COVID-19

AUTM Better World Project awarded UTRF 2020 Legend Award and Spotlight on Gene Pool Innovations

Category: Research

UT Research Foundation

Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., — The University of Tennessee has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, from the N95 mask technology to developing systems to quickly and safely screen vaccines, as used by Moderna and Pfizer. These contributions were recently recognized by AUTM’s Better World Project, which named the UT Research Foundation (UTRF) as its 2020 Legend Award honoree and spotlighted its work on Gene Pool Innovations for its role in moving academic research from the lab to the marketplace.

These recognitions emphasize UTRF’s commitment to moving innovative University of Tennessee (UT) technology out of the lab and into the real world to make it a better place for all. Since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers across the UT System have been diligently using their knowledge, skills and technology to stop the spread of COVID-19 and contribute to vaccine development — likely saving countless lives.

The 2020 Legend Award recognizes UTRF for its role in facilitating the proliferation of the N95 mask, made from UT technology. First created 30 years ago, the N95 mask is now essential in protecting millions of healthcare workers and others against COVID-19.

Peter Tsai
Peter Tsai

Peter Tsai, the architect behind the critical technology in N95 respirators and retired professor from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UT Knoxville’s Tickle College of Engineering, has a 25-year-long partnership with UTRF that includes 12 U.S. patents and more than 20 commercial license agreements. This year, UTRF connected Tsai and his research to a large number of facilities around the world. Tsai came out of retirement to share his expertise with many companies interested in producing his charged nonwoven fabric or in scaling up production.

“We are honored AUTM’s Better World Project has given UTRF the 2020 Legend Award,” said UTRF Vice President Maha Krishnamurthy. “Dr. Peter Tsai is a hero of the COVID-19 pandemic. While his original research was critical in the creation of the N95 respirator, it has been his continued contributions to the field that showcase the high-caliber of researchers and innovations we have coming out of UT and into the market.”

AUTM’s Better World Project also spotlighted UTRF for Gene Pool Innovations at the University Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis. The recognized researcher, Michael Whitt, associate dean and chair of the Department of Medical Education at the UTHSC College of Medicine and professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry, developed and patented a reverse genetics system that uses vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) to allow researchers to study highly dangerous viruses in safer conditions.

Michael Whitt
Michael Whitt

When the pandemic hit, Whitt adapted his unique pseudotyping technology to aid in vaccine development. Both Moderna and Pfizer use Whitt’s VSV platform to test the inhibitory effects of the antibodies generated after a COVID vaccination. Last year, UTRF facilitated access to Whitt’s technology by entering into agreements with multiple companies for transfer of the VSV pseudotypes through licensing and material transfer agreements and building distribution partnerships to provide the VSV platform globally. More than 170 companies and universities in over 30 different countries have used these materials during the pandemic.

“We are thrilled AUTM’s Better World Project recognized the significance of Dr. Whitt’s research and contributions toward vaccine development,” said UTRF Vice President Richard Magid. “Dr. Whitt’s willingness to pivot his work in the face of the pandemic is admirable. This recognition will likely bring even more attention to the forward-thinking researchers and incredible innovations at UTHSC.”

“AUTM’s recognition validates the high-quality research and technology coming out of the University of Tennessee and its positive impact on society,” said UTRF President Stacey Patterson. “At UTRF, we promote the commercialization of UT intellectual property and encourage an entrepreneurial culture. But our mission isn’t just about identifying, protecting and licensing UT technology — it’s about getting innovation into the hands of people who need it.”


About UTRF

The University of Tennessee Research Foundation is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes the commercialization of UT intellectual property, encourages an entrepreneurial culture, contributes to state and regional economic development, and promotes research and education to benefit the people of Tennessee and beyond. While UTRF is a separate entity from UT, it provides assistance and resources to the research activities of faculty, staff and students of the UT system (including campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Martin, the Health Science Center in Memphis, the state-wide Institute of Agriculture, the UT Space Institute in Tullahoma, and the UT Institute of Public Service). UTRF works to help move ideas to the marketplace.

About AUTM and The Better World Project

AUTM is the nonprofit leader in efforts to educate, promote and inspire professionals to support the development of academic research that changes the world and drives innovation forward. Its community is comprised of more than 3,000 members who work in more than 800 universities, research centers, hospitals, businesses and government organizations around the globe. AUTM created the Better World Project (BWP) more than a decade ago, to illustrate the impacts of research commercialization on the world by sharing its successes.

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Category: Research