Pandemic-born innovation spurs first patent filed through Kentucky's community college system
Published on Sep 9, 2021
Story by By Haley Cawthon - Reporter
Back in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Eric Wooldridge and his team at Somerset Community College (SCC) were mass producing thousands of face shields with the use of 3D printers.
It was a practical application for SCC's Additive Manufacturing Center for Excellence, which was developed after Wooldridge, a longtime professor and engineer, helped the community college get its first 3D printer in 2013 through a grant. That first printer opened the door for innovation and the college began to apply for more grants through the National Science Foundation.
"Since a 3D printer will make whatever you want, it's really about training people to understand that and use the technology, and then it opens the floodgates for innovation," Wooldridge said, noting the low cost of 3D printing permits continuous experimentation. "We've helped small businesses get started and we've developed several new types of products."
And through that effort to rapidly produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health care workers during the crisis, Wooldridge and SCC's innovations have led to a first for Kentucky's community college system: a patent filing.
In the midst of making around 7,000 face shields, Wooldridge and other SCC instructors were working with the University of Kentucky to develop a new kind of nano-coating to make reusable filters for breathable face masks. Nano-coating is the process of applying a surface layer that repels dry particles, water, oil and dirt.
The researchers found a material on the market that already had antiviral and antibacterial properties, so they only had to combine that existing material with a 3D printing technique to make it usable for PPE.
"The technique allows us to take 3D printers and turn them into mesh printers, creating a very thin and porous shape, like a ribbon," Wooldridge said. "Once you have this fabric, then you can just put it right into three layers of cloth and make it breathable."
During its months-long development process, Wooldridge had an introductory meeting with Kentucky Commercialization Ventures (KCV), a relatively new consortium formed to provide commercialization services for state universities that don’t produce enough research to justify having their own commercialization departments. He met with KCV's Executive Director Monique Quarterman and Megan Aanstoos, licensing and new ventures manager, and told them about the new antiviral material.
KCV was drawn to the project, Wooldridge said, and they began having discussions on how to develop it further. Wooldridge has filed patents and successfully commercialized under his own name, but Aanstoos worked with him to file a patent application for the new innovation on behalf of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS) in May.
"That was the first time that a community college here in Kentucky had ever filed for provisional patent application with the assignee being KCTCS," Aanstoos said. "Not only that, but it's one of the few community college systems around the entire country who have done patent filings. It's really cool to see and that it's coming from someone who is passionate about being an innovator."
Wooldridge was willing to go through the extra steps to make the patent filing a reality, Aantoos continued, and KCV wants to use his example to inspire others to pursue innovations.
"We want to highlight that it doesn't matter if you're a researcher from a big R1 institution or you're a researcher at a community college — when you see a problem and you find a solution for it, that's what we're here to help support by protecting the intellectual property that has been developed in the form of patents and copyrights and so forth," she said. "When it becomes published by the USPTO [United States Patent and Trademark Office], it becomes another indicator to the world of what's going on here in Kentucky."
Sarah Modgling, director of communications at SCC, said Wooldridge has been active in bringing additive manufacturing technology and training to the rest of Kentucky's community colleges through the Rapid Response Additive Manufacturing Initiative (RRAMI). Ten sites across Kentucky have since been set up with 3D printing equipment, fueling the next wave of innovation and entrepreneurs.