A Singapore-based scientist has, for the first time, earned 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).
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, it aims 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 yesterday by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), which the IBN comes under.
Prof Ying, a chemical engineer by training, joins more than 900 inventors worldwide given the NAI Fellow status in all. This year's fellows hold nearly 6,000 issued US patents, bringing the patents held by all fellows to more than 32,000.
The group includes 29 Nobel laureates such as Japanese-born American scientist Shuji Nakamura, 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.
She joined the chemical engineering faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1992, and became its youngest full professor in 2001, at age 35.
She has more than 180 primary patents and patent applications.
Thirty-two of her patents have been licensed to firms for applications in areas including drug delivery, nanomedicine, cell and tissue engineering and medical implants.
Her inventions have also led to 11 spin-offs, one of which - SmartCells Inc - has developed a technology capable of autoregulating the release of insulin for treating diabetes.
The firm 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."
Prof Smith, also the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor of Chemical Engineering (Emeritus) at MIT, noted that Singapore's economy was "not particularly entrepreneurial" when Prof Ying arrived in the country, but 13 new start-ups have since been successfully spun out of IBN.
This achievement serves as a role model for other research institutes and aspiring inventors, he added.
Prof Ying, who has a 16-year-old daughter, said her next step is to establish an incubator to help spin off medtech and biotech companies.
She has won a string of 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 Mustafa Prize Top Scientific Achievement Award in 2015 for her innovation in bionanotechnology. This award is presented by Iran to leading Muslim researchers.