Photo of Case Western Reserve University signage with flowers in front of it

Bringing ideas to market: CWRU researchers turn discoveries into inventions

From research labs to collaborative workspaces across campus, Case Western Reserve University students, faculty and staff truly share one motivation: thinking beyond the possible. Their efforts advance knowledge, enhance understanding, and regularly spark discoveries—discoveries that often serve as the impetus to create groundbreaking inventions and startups.

With support from the Technology Transfer Office, members of the campus community can commercialize their discoveries. And they do—Case Western Reserve’s many notable alumni have launched inventions such as Gmail (Paul Buchheit, CWRU ’98, GRS ’98, computer engineering), Nike Air Sole (M. Frank Rudy, CIT ’50), Craigslist (Craig Newmark, CIT ’75, GRS ’77), KiwiCo. (Sandra Oh Lin, CWR ’97) and more.

To recognize National Inventors Day (Feb. 11), The Daily checked in with three of CWRU’s many researchers-turned-inventors to hear how their latest inventions are making waves in the marketplace.

Answers have been lightly edited.

Headshot of Darcy Freedman

Darcy Freedman

Mary Ann Swetland Professorship in Environmental Health Sciences

Darcy Freedman developed FM Tracks, a novel iOS app that helps farmers markets offer nutrition incentives so those using SNAP benefits are better able to purchase fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. 

FM Tracks is licensed to two nonprofit organizations that have disseminated it to approximately 500 farmers markets nationwide.

1. What was the inspiration for your invention?

I believed in the value of nutrition incentives as a tool for stretching food budgets to access fresh fruits and veggies needed for a healthy diet. However, I could see barriers to implementing incentive programs because they are cumbersome to manage. I wanted to create technology that would make it easier for farmers’ markets across the U.S. to take the risk to provide nutrition incentive programs for SNAP consumers in their communities. 

2. Growing up, did you ever think you would become an inventor?

I never sought out to be an inventor. But I have always been a problem solver. I look for ways to make things happen, especially in cases when people tell me: “No we can’t do this.” That type of response motivates me to figure out a solution. 

3. What does it mean to you to contribute to society in this way?

Hearing end-users say the technology has allowed them to expand their nutrition incentive programming to reach more people motivates me to continue to invest in FM Tracks. I can look at the data in FM Tracks and imagine the public health impact nutrition incentive programs are having on families and farmers across the nation.

Headshot of Sanford Markowitz

Sanford Markowitz

Ingalls Professor of Cancer Genetics

A discovery Sanford Markowitz made in the lab has led to the development of a test to detect early esophageal cancers and their precursor lesions. The test, licensed to Lucid Diagnostics, is on the market now for physicians and patients. 

Markowitz’s team also has developed a new drug to stimulate tissue regeneration, with potential to treat colitis and other diseases. The drug is under development by Amgen, which acquired Rodeo Therapeutics—the startup Markowitz created with School of Medicine Dean Stan Gerson—in March 2021.

1. What was the inspiration for your invention?

Both inventions were the outgrowth of basic studies on the genetics of human cancers. The esophagus test translated basic discoveries on DNA alterations in esophageal cancers. The regenerative medicine drug targets a pathway that we identified as regulating tissue stem cells, but that we first came upon because of finding it is co-opted during colon tumor development.

2. Growing up, did you ever think you would become an inventor?

Growing up, I was always fascinated by scientific discovery, and by the interplay between discovery and invention.

3. What does it mean to you to contribute to society in this way?

As a physician-scientist, the most gratifying experience possible is witnessing an idea make it all the way from one’s lab bench to having an impact on improving the way patients are cared for and treated.

Headshot of Ken Singer

Ken Singer

Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics

Based on his research, Ken Singer launched a startup called Folio Photonics LLC to develop a new data-archiving medium that will allow for optical discs to have increased storage capacity.

Singer estimates the company’s terabyte-scale will hit the general enterprise market in 2025.

1. What was the inspiration for your invention?

The idea for this came from my participation in Case Western [Reserve]’s Center for Layered Polymer Systems, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center. My role in the center was to explore applications for the polymer co-extrusion process in electronic and photonic applications.

2. Growing up, did you ever think you would become an inventor?

I always wanted to be a scientist. Every scientist is an inventor; we cannot publish our work unless it is something new. Sometimes, like in this case, it is an idea that has potential commercial value. 

3. What does it mean to you to contribute to society in this way?

I always wanted my work in applied physics to have an impact. Data storage is a critical societal need, especially now that the demand is exploding and current data storage media are reaching the end of their roadmap. Our invention is a real opportunity to make a really broad and important impact.