Singapore-based scientist Jackie Ying clinches highest accolade for academic inventors

Professor Jackie Y. Ying has been named a Fellow of the United States National Academy of Inventors. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A Singapore-based scientist has earned for the first time the highest professional accolade for academic inventors.

Professor Jackie Y. Ying, executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), has been named a Fellow of the United States National Academy of Inventors (NAI).

According to the academy, the status is given to academic inventors who have shown a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have contributed to society.

Prof Ying, 51, born in Taiwan but an American citizen raised in Singapore and New York, is one of 155 inventors from around the world who received the honour this year.

The NAI is a non-profit member organisation founded in 2010 to recognise inventors with patents issued from the US Patent and Trademark Office. Based in Florida, US, its goal is to make academic technology and innovation more visible and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society.

"It is a great honour to be named a fellow of the US National Academy of Inventors," Prof Ying said in a statement released on Tuesday (Dec 12) by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*Star, which the IBN comes under.

Prof Ying, a chemical engineer by training, joins a select group of more than 900 inventors worldwide who have been given the NAI Fellow status. The 2017 Fellows hold nearly 6,000 issued US patents, bringing the number of patents held by all Fellows to more than 32,000.

The group includes 29 Nobel Laureates such as Japanese-born American materials scientist Shuji Nakamura and American biochemist Paul Modrich, and more than 100 presidents and senior leaders of research universities and non-profit research institutes.

"Having gone to the same college as Thomas Edison, I was always inspired to be an inventor. To be able to make a societal impact through technological breakthroughs and innovations is the most exciting aspect of research," said Prof Ying, who graduated in 1987 from New York's Cooper Union, a college which counts Edison as an alumnus.

Prof Ying went on to join the chemical engineering faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1992, and became its youngest full professor at age 35 in 2001.

She has more than 180 primary patents and patent applications. Thirty-two of her patents have been licensed to multinational and start-up companies for a range of applications in nanomedicine, drug delivery, cell and tissue engineering, medical implants, biosensors and medical devices, for instance.

Her inventions have also led to the founding of 11 spin-offs, one of which - SmartCells Inc - has developed a technology capable of autoregulating the release of insulin, depending on the blood glucose levels for the treatment of diabetes.

The company was acquired by pharmaceutical giant Merck in 2010, with milestone-based aggregate payments of more than US$500 million (S$676 million) to further develop this nanomedicine for clinical trials.

Professor Kenneth Smith, chair of IBN's Scientific Advisory Board, said: "Prof Ying has amassed an incredible record of scientific contributions that she has converted to important inventions and then to significant new commercial ventures."

He said her talent has "truly flowered" since coming to Singapore.

Prof Smith, also the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor of Chemical Engineering (Emeritus) at MIT, added: "When she arrived, the Singaporean economy was not particularly entrepreneurial, but 13 new start-up companies have since been successfully spun out of IBN, and this achievement now serves as a role model for other research institutes and for other aspiring inventors."

Prof Ying, who has a 16-year-old daughter, said her next step is to establish an incubator to help spin off companies in the medtech and biotech sectors.

"It has been very fulfilling to create an innovative culture at IBN," she said, adding that this promotes internal and external collaborations and encourages students in the IBN Youth Research Programme to pursue research careers.

Prof Ying has won a string of international awards for her inventions.

For instance, she was named one of the "100 Engineers of the Modern Era" by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in 2008.

Prof Ying, who converted to Islam in her 30s, was also the inaugural winner of the US$500,000 (S$676,000) Mustafa Prize Top Scientific Achievement Award in 2015 for her innovation in bionanotechnology. This prize is presented by the Iranian government to leading Muslim researchers.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.