Caltech is a world-renowned science and engineering institute that invents the technologies of the future, with research interests from quantum science and engineering, to bioinformatics and the nature of life itself and from human behavior and economics, to energy and sustainability. Founded as Throop University in 1891, the institute was renamed the California Institute of Technology in 1920.

Located in Pasadena, CA, Caltech manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for NASA, sending probes to explore the planets of our solar system and quantify changes on our home planet; owns and operates large-scale research facilities such as the Seismological Laboratory and a global network of astronomical observatories including the Palomar and W. M. Keck Observatories; and co-founded and co-manages LIGO, which in 2016 observed gravitational waves for the first time.

Founded by Caltech faculty, NASA’s JPL is the leading US center for the robotic exploration of the solar system. With leaders drawn from the institute’s faculty and more than 200 funded collaborations and joint academic appointments, JPL’s history of world-leading innovation has been shaped by its role as a division of Caltech. Researchers and technicians on the Caltech campus and at JPL lead missions in planetary exploration, Earth science, and space-based astronomy.

Research Centers & Institutes

Robots were developed that are capable of self-propulsion without using any motors, servos, or power supply. Instead, they paddle through water as the material they are constructed from deforms with temperature changes. (Credit: Tian Chen and Osama R. Bilal)

Caltech is home to more than 50 research centers and institutes including the following:

Jet Propulsion Laboratory – Founded by Caltech in the 1930s and managed for NASA since 1958, there are more than 100 research and mission collaborations with Caltech faculty.

Caltech Seismological Laboratory – Provides research centers for seismic studies, high-performance computing, and mineral physics. It is the preeminent source for earthquake information in Southern California and around the world.

International Observatory Network – Includes W. M. Keck Observatory, Palomar Observatory, Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, Owens Valley Radio Observatory, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and Chajnantor Observatory, Chile.

Beckman Institute – Invents methods, instrumentation, and materials for fundamental research in the chemical and biological sciences including research thrusts too innovative or too high-risk for the regular sources of research support in government and industry.

RoAM (Robotic Assisted Mobility) unites robotic assistive devices, including exoskeletons and prostheses, with artificial intelligence (AI)-infused neurocontrol to restore natural and stable locomotion to individuals with walking deficiencies that result from spinal cord injuries and strokes.

Kavli Nanoscience Institute (KNI) – Conducts nanoscale research at the frontiers of electronics, photonics, quantum matter and technology, medical and bio-engineering, and sustainability. It is the home of an advanced nanofabrication facility that helps support this research. The KNI has been critical to realizing breakthroughs in nanoscale photonics, materials science, and biotechnology.

Center for Geomechanics and Mitigation of Geohazards (GMG) – Helps design strategies and technical solutions for safe and economic operations for carbon dioxide storage, oil and gas extraction and production, and geothermal heat production. It leverages modeling, computing, geophysical, and remote-sensing research to understand how geomaterials fail when subjected to hydromechanical effects.

Caltech designed a way to levitate and propel objects using only light by creating specific nanoscale patterning on the objects’ surfaces. The work is a step toward developing a spacecraft that could reach the nearest planet outside of our solar system in 20 years, powered and accelerated only by light. (Credit: Courtesy of the Atwater laboratory)

Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) - Develops new planetary, Earth, and astrophysics space mission concepts and technology. The Institute is centered on the intellectual, instrumentation, and research strengths of the Caltech Campus and JPL.

Climate Modeling Alliance – CliMA provides scientific information needed to face climate change. A coalition of scientists, engineers, and applied mathematicians from Caltech, MIT, the Naval Postgraduate School, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CliMA is building a new Earth system model that leverages recent advances in the computational and data sciences to learn directly from Earth observations from space and the ground. It will provide predictions of droughts, heat waves, and rainfall extremes.

Resnick Sustainability Institute – Fosters advances in sustainability by focusing on the innovative science and engineering research required to develop technologies and solutions to global energy, water, climate, and associated ecology challenges. From new classes of materials for photovoltaics and photoelectrochemistry, to new bio-chemical processes for catalysis and wastewater treatment, to new ways to reduce the carbon footprint of industry, researchers have made progress in the generation, storage, conversion, and distribution of energy, water, and other natural resources.

Technologies

An implantable pressure sensor can reside in the human eye for years at a time while wirelessly sending data about the eye’s health to the patient or medical professionals. The implant is designed for monitoring the eyes of patients with glaucoma.

Caltech scientists have launched new fields of study and invented world-changing tools and technologies. Here are some examples of Caltech’s most important technologies.

Lifted the Fog on Smog. In the 1940s, Caltech directly linked smog to automobile exhaust, ultimately prompting the formation of the California Air Resources Board. Since then, Caltech researchers have continued to influence air-pollution management with new insights into urban smog formation and discoveries about the origin, chemistry, and evolution of particles in the atmosphere.

Made Computing Personal. Gordon Moore developed memory chips and microprocessors that paved the way for personal computers. His 1965 prediction, popularly known as Moore’s Law, correctly surmised that the number of transistors on a single chip would double approximately every two years.

Fought Lead Contamination. Attempting to calculate the age of Earth, Caltech discovered that toxic lead contaminated everything from lab instruments to canned fish, ocean water, Antarctic ice, and most alarmingly, the human body. This research drove efforts to remove lead from gasoline and to implement environmental protections including the Clean Air Act of 1970.

Pioneered Chip Design. Through a process known as very-large-scale integration (VLSI), Caltech made it possible for tens of thousands of transistors to be packaged on a single silicon chip. VLSI revolutionized electronics, enabling the building of processors that today drive devices such as laptops, tablets, smartphones, and DVD players.

Redefined Surgical Precision. A team at JPL developed the Robot Assisted MicroSurgery (RAMS) system that enables surgeons to perform operations with 20 times more accuracy than can be achieved by the human hand alone. This method is widely used, including in 40 percent of prostate surgeries nationwide.

Helped the Blind See. Caltech helped develop a retinal prosthesis that allows blind patients to see again through electrical stimulation. The prosthesis acts as biological photoreceptors normally do, stimulating neurons in the retina to create an image.

Built the Tools that Measure Earthquakes. In the 1930s, Caltech seismologists developed the Richter scale, a numerical scale for measuring earthquake magnitude. Nearly 50 years later, Caltech developed the moment magnitude scale, allowing for more accurate readings of larger quakes at greater distances.

Led Earthquake Monitoring. In collaboration with colleagues and volunteers across California, Caltech researchers are using low-cost accelerometer chips (like those found in smartphones) to provide block-by-block estimates of shaking and damage during an earthquake and are working with the U.S. Geological Survey to develop an earthquake early-warning system.

Gravitational Waves. Led by Caltech physicists and MIT, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) made the first-ever detection of gravitational waves — ripples in spacetime — in September 2015. The detection, which came 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in his general theory of relativity, opened a new window onto the cosmos, ushering in the field of gravitational astronomy.

A new material’s shape can be finely tuned, adjusting its physical properties as desired. Defects in the material are strategically placed to cause it to take on a specific shape when the material deforms. The material has potential applications in next-generation energy storage and bio-implantable microdevices.

Trained Eyes on the Skies. Caltech researchers designed and built the world’s most sophisticated telescopes and astronomical observatories including the W. M. Keck Observatory, whose twin telescopes are currently the largest and most scientifically productive on Earth. The Keck telescopes have made possible the observation of young stars, ancient galaxies, and dozens of planets — some potentially habitable — outside the solar system.

Memory Technology. A new system writes and records information in flash technology. The system is called rank modulation and has improved the capacity, endurance, reliability, and speed of flash memory as well as made it possible for the flash technology already widely used in portable electronic devices to be expanded for use in large-scale computing and other big enterprises.

Autism Therapy and Diagnostics. Researchers could revolutionize how autism is treated and diagnosed with a unique link between the activation of the immune system during pregnancy and elevated risk for autism in the offspring. The presence of specific gut bacterial metabolites in the blood may also be used as an early diagnostic test for autism.

Chemical Synthesis. A team is creating new ways of making complex molecules that are useful in developing pharmaceuticals and natural products that would otherwise be too challenging to produce. A chemical reaction selectively and accurately produces complex compounds for use in creating products ranging from chemotherapeutic agents to bioactive plant materials such as morphine.

Wonder Material. Researchers are working toward a new material platform for tomorrow’s nano-electronics and energy-generating and -saving devices. They have developed a method for cheaply and efficiently fabricating — at room temperature — large, high-quality sheets of a “wonder material”: graphene. This novel material is thin, flexible, and strong, as well as transparent and conductive.

Wearable Sensor. A mass-producible wearable sensor can monitor levels of metabolites and nutrients in a person’s blood by analyzing their sweat. Such sensors would allow doctors to continuously monitor the condition of patients with illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or kidney disease, all of which result in abnormal levels of nutrients or metabolites in the bloodstream. The microfluidic-based wearable sensor is made of graphene, a sheet-like form of carbon. The sensor measures respiratory rate, heart rate, and levels of uric acid and tyrosine.

Architected Metamaterial. A new material’s shape can be finely tuned, adjusting its physical properties as desired. The material, which has potential applications in next-generation energy storage and bio-implantable micro-devices, deforms through an electrochemically driven silicon-lithium alloying reaction, meaning that it can be finely controlled to attain any “in-between” states, remain in these configurations even upon the removal of the stimulus, and be easily reversed.

A prototype miniature medical device could ultimately be used in “smart pills” to diagnose and treat diseases. A key to the new technology is that its location can be precisely identified within the body. In the gastrointestinal tract, the chip works on principles similar to those used in MRI machines. (Credit: Ella Marushchenko for Caltech)

Technology Transfer

Throughout Caltech’s history, discoveries by the Institute’s faculty, research staff, and students — as well as by JPL researchers — have led directly to the creation of products and services that benefit society.

Founded in 1995, the Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships (OTTCP) is charged with facilitating and managing the transfer of technologies created by scientists and engineers at Caltech to the commercial sector and with establishing and maintaining partnerships in support of joint scientific breakthroughs between Caltech and industry.

More than 130 new companies have been launched at an average rate of eight startups per year. Caltech generally receives 120 issued U.S. patents per year, with about 1,800 active U.S. patents in its portfolio. Caltech also continues to expand the number of strategic partnerships with corporate entities.

There are a number of ways to support the commercialization of Caltech technologies. To view available technologies, visit here . For more information on the technology transfer process, visit here .


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This article first appeared in the April, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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