Val Stella says he’s just good at connecting the dots.
A distinguished professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at Kansas University, Stella has been connecting the dots at KU since 1973.
He served 10 years as the director of KU’s Center for Drug Delivery Research, and spun off three companies: CyDex, CritiTech and ProQuest. He has developed or co-developed drugs for the treatment of epilepsy and AIDS, and developed an agent used to dissolve drugs for injection.
Stella said that his work is really about seeing things that other people miss, such as how a drug compound can be tweaked to better fight disease, or how an innovation is — or, sometimes more importantly, isn’t — marketable.
LaVerne Epp, president and chairman of the Lawrence-Douglas County Biosciences Authority, said Stella paved the way for the current momentum behind getting basic research finds out of the laboratory and into the community’s economic development engine.
“He’s kind of the poster child for all of that and for everything we want to do more of,” he said.
Stella said he’d been doing some thinking as to why he was chosen to be nominated to the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame — and he said that on the surface, he imagined it was because of his association with companies that were founded using KU-generated research, and his collection of drug-related patents.
“I’m also hoping that there is maybe a bigger and more important realization,” Stella said. “And that is that the university is not just an academic institution, but it is part of the business of Lawrence.”
For example, he said, for him to maintain a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher in his lab with salary, overhead and indirect costs, can cost about $100,000.
An average lab with about seven people working in it means costs of about $700,000 a year, he said. A business operating in the $1 million to $2 million range would be considerable by Lawrence’s standards, he said.
He said he learned early the importance of business from his father, who operated a wrought-iron company in Stella’s native Australia.
“He would build things because people were willing to pay for it,” said Stella, recalling his father’s patents for things like polishing machines.
While the family never was rich, he said, they had enough to get by.
In the academic world, Stella noticed that publishing an important find would lead to public disclosure, nullifying the potential for patents and earnings.
Today, KU has an office devoted to helping professors obtain patents and maximize revenue for their innovations. But when Stella was getting started, the path wasn’t clear.
“You’ve heard of ‘publish or perish,’” Stella said. “When you’ve got a technology that potentially has value, it’s ‘publish and perish.’”
His friends and colleagues praised his brain — one with an uncanny ability to see situations in new ways.
“He’s really a very unique academic,” said Ron Borchardt, a fellow KU distinguished professor in pharmaceutical chemistry who has known Stella for nearly 40 years. “He is not only known for the quality of his basic research through his publications and his presentations at scientific meetings nationally and internationally.
“He’s also a very good applied scientist. He is directly and indirectly involved with a variety of different drug products and has enabled them to be commercialized.”
Also, Borchardt said, Stella takes great pride in his teaching — he was honored in 2008 with a Chancellor’s Club award recognizing his teaching excellence.
He also works to better the community, and is a good family man, Borchardt said.
“He’s a very creative and imaginative fellow,” he said. “Val’s mind is always working.”