Wanting to help others is nothing new for Mohammed “Moh” Alhaj.
As an undergraduate engineering student at Rutgers University, Alhaj took on projects that would impact society, including the development of a tendon-driven prosthetic arm.
“(Because I was) born with an undeveloped arm, I always had this desire to help the physically disabled and act as a role model to younger persons with disabilities,” Alhaj said.
Then, in summer 2015, Alhaj found another way to make a positive impact. As an intern in the research and development division of Johnson & Johnson, he contributed to research on membrane technology by analyzing membranes in polymeric films. Membrane technology, which involves the separation of substances between a thin layer of material, has applications in water filtration for emerging markets.
“I contributed to a new technology that has the potential to benefit developing countries around the world,” Alhaj said. “From this experience (at Johnson & Johnson), I formed a new goal to be reached: targeting sustainability issues in the field of materials science and engineering.”
With that goal in mind, and aspirations of one day patenting and licensing his own technologies, Alhaj applied for the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The HERE program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Under the guidance of mentor Nestor Franco, Ph.D., in the Technology Transfer Division of the Science and Partnerships Directorate, Alhaj helped market ORNL technologies to industries worldwide.
“I was to understand the basic concept and application of each technology, and thus reach out to applicable industries who may be interested based on their own products,” Alhaj explained. “This led to conference calls between the ORNL researchers, employees from the corporation, my supervisor and me. If the calls went successfully, we would move on to the final stage, signing an agreement between ORNL and the corporation for licensing.”
Successfully commercializing an invention for industrial scale has far-reaching benefits, Alhaj noted.
“One example is marketing a low-cost filtration membrane, which can filter high-quality water at a very high rate,” he said. “If a company decides to buy the technology and scale it up, millions of consumers in developing countries such as Kenya would gain access to clean, filtered water.”
Alhaj said learning about the licensing process has made him a more well-rounded researcher.
“Gaining experience on the business side will help me as a researcher in the future to patent my own technologies and license them to potential licensees,” said Alhaj, who is pursuing his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering at Michigan State University.
“This internship was an important stepping stone in furthering my education, as I learned the basic skills on how to market and scale up lab-developed technologies,” Alhaj said. “Meetings with the lab’s employees as well as the conference calls with industries greatly improved my networking skills, as making connections is key to building yourself up to success in the future.”
Once he receives his doctoral degree, Alhaj envisions continuing his research in a facility where he can focus on providing sustainable solutions to emerging markets and developing countries.
“A government lab such as ORNL would be perfect for this long-term goal, as the Department of Energy is devoted to providing a more sustainable environment,” he said.