Innovative faculty elected to the National Academy of Inventors

Feb. 15, 2023

Inventions from new Senior Members are making mining safer and greener, advancing treatments for cancer, and improving healthcare through better cameras and visualization

UA President Robert C. Robbins and Professor Moe Momayez talking about what is being displayed on a laptop screen in front of them.

Left to right: President Robert C. Robbins and NAI Senior Member Moe Momayez at Tech Launch Arizona's I-Squared Expo & Awards in 2018.

Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. – The National Academy of Inventors has named 95 inventors to its list of the world’s top emerging academic inventors, designating them as Senior Members. Among these are three University of Arizona faculty members: Professor Rongguang Liang of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences and the UArizona Cancer Center; Professor Moe Momayez of Mining and Geological Engineering; and Associate Research Professor Vijay Gokhale at the BIO5 Institute.  

All three awardees have worked with Tech Launch Arizona, the office of the university that commercializes inventions stemming from research and innovation, to commercialize the novel discoveries stemming from their work.

“It’s wonderful to see more of our UArizona inventors receiving this honor,” said Doug Hockstad, associate vice president of TLA. “All three have worked closely with TLA to grow the impact of their research and inventions, and we look forward to continuing that relationship and supporting the vision for a better world.“

Since the NAI introduced the Senior Member designation in 2019, the UArizona has had 19 faculty members awarded the designation.

“Generating an impact is part and parcel of our culture at the University of Arizona,” said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation. “Beyond producing peer-reviewed publications and advancing the workforce through education and training of graduate students, these faculty inventors have also added real value to our region through patenting and licensing. I am thrilled to see each of them receive this richly deserved recognition from the National Academy of Inventors.”

Vijay Gokhale, Small Molecules Addressing Big Healthcare Issues

Vijay Gokhale

Vijay Gokhale, PhD, co-inventor, co-founder and senior research scientist at the UA BIO5 Institute.

Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Gokhale’s work focuses on using medicinal chemistry to develop small molecule therapeutics for neuropathic pain, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and acute lung injury and cancer. His work has led to six issued U.S. patents and five foreign patents, four of which have been licensed to companies to take them forward into the marketplace. His inventions have served as foundational technologies for three startups: Reglagene, Fibronox, and Regulonix.

He co-developed the first highly selective Nox4 small molecule inhibitors for the treatment of fibrotic disorders, which cause over 45 percent of deaths in the U.S. each year. The UArizona licensed the technology to startup Fibronix, and the company has received an SBIR Phase 1 grant to continue to move it forward.

Along with co-inventor and NAI Fellow Dr. Laurence Hurley, he launched Reglagene, a startup to commercialize small molecules that affect gene expression for the treatment of cancer. The company has received funding from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Flinn Foundation and the Arizona Commerce Authority, and is a portfolio company of Tucson’s Desert Angels, Cancer Fund and Viva BioInnovator.

Gokhale also co-founded Regulonix to bring to the world small molecules targeting CRMP2 protein SUMOylation for the treatment of pain. Based on his work and that of his colleagues, Regulonix is developing non-opioid drugs for chronic pain at a time when the world is facing a tragic opioid epidemic, offering a potentially game-changing solution to the problem. He started the company with his long-time colleagues and NAI Senior Members: May Khanna, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pharmacology; and Rajesh Khanna, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology.

“I am honored and humbled to receive this recognition,” Gokhale said. “Innovation opens new avenues for utilizing research for the greater good.”

He attributes his success to the support of his wife, Sonali, and two children; Director of the BIO5 Institute Jennifer Barton, and his mentor Professor Emeritus of the R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy Laurence Hurley.

Moe Momayez, Towards Safer, Cleaner Mining Practices

In a field of finite resources that generate a negative environmental impact by its very nature, Momayez has brought his innovative and academic expertise to bear on creating sustainable practices across the mining space. He has dedicated his career to the development of new technologies to improve mine safety and productivity, with a focus on miner health and safety, characterization of geomaterials, energy and process efficiency, and renewable energy.

Momayez has three issued U.S. patents and two pending patent applications. He has worked with TLA to license inventions into multiple startups, including Guía, LLC; Caltrode, Inc.; Acrete Pte, Ltd.; MetOxs Electrochemicals; and Auxilium Technology Group.

“As a researcher, you use your knowledge, experience, and imagination to work on novel approaches to complex issues, design ground-breaking new technologies and products, and improve people's lives,” Momayez said. “Our job as inventors is to never stop trying to improve the world, we live in.”

One of his research and development focuses has been the storage and use of mine tailings. To reduce evaporation and increase the amount of water for reuse, he developed a system of floating, interlocking panels to cover tailings ponds. The panels can be outfitted with solar panels to generate power. He also developed a spray-on thermal insulating geofoam made with mine tailings. When applied to the walls in hot underground mines, the geofoam provides a layer of insulation that prevents heat from radiating from the rock into the working areas, significantly reducing the cost of cooling the air. Both technologies were licensed to Auxilium Technology Group.

“A senior membership in the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) is a prestigious distinction that recognizes an individual's extraordinary achievements in invention and innovation,” he said. “I am elated and humbled to be included in this august group.”

Rongguang Liang, Visualizing the Future of Healthcare

Left to right: Rongguang Liang and student Zhihan Hong.

Left to right: Rongguang Liang and student Zhihan Hong.

Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Rongguang Liang has dedicated his career to finding new ways to apply optics to enhance healthcare. After spending seven years as an optical engineer in china, he came to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in optical engineering at the UArizona.

After receiving his degree, he went to the Eastman Kodak Company where he invented a dual-mode imaging technique for the early detection of tooth decay. The resulting camera from this work was commercialized and has since played an important role in improving how dentists detect and prevent the advance of cavities.

As a senior researcher for Carestream Health, Inc., Liang invented a polarization 3D imaging system for intraoral scanning and initiated a 3D intraoral scanning camera project. The 3D imaging camera significantly simplifies the dental impression process, saving patients time and money for custom dental products such as dentures, crowns, implants, and aligners. This technology was acquired by Envista Holding Corporation for $600M in 2022.

In the latest phase of his career as a UArizona professor, Liang has continued research pushing the boundaries of optical technology applications and continues inventing new, impactful solutions. In 2017, he worked with Tech Launch Arizona to license a dual-view endoscopic device he co-developed with UArizona professor Dr. Bhaskar Banerjee of the College of Medicine – Tucson to startup Omniscient LLC.  The probe provides doctors with multiple fields of view simultaneously to address the shortcomings of traditional endoscopes, offering a simultaneous forward and 360-degree rearview in a single display.

The NAI Senior Member Designation

To be designated a Senior Member of the NAI, nominees must be active, renowned scientists and administrators with demonstrated success in patents, licensing inventions, and the commercialization of those inventions with the goal of generating real and measurable societal impact. They also have growing success in patents, licensing, and commercialization, while educating and mentoring the next generation of inventors.

This latest class of NAI Senior Members, the largest to date, demonstrates a shared commitment to celebrating the diversity of the academic ecosystem, with 48 outstanding female and/or minority academic inventors included. Hailing from 50 NAI member institutions and research universities across the nation, this impressive class are named inventors on over 1200 issued U.S. patents with many of those being licensed and commercialized.

Gokhale, Momayez, and Liang will be celebrated with the rest of the 2023 class of Senior Members at NAI’s annual meeting, Diversifying Innovation for a Strong Economy and a Sustainable Future, taking place June 25-27th, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

Paul Tumarkin, Assistant Director, Marketing & Communications