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UNM tech transfer ‘on a roll’

Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

Many more medical devices and modern techniques to diagnose and treat diseases could reach doctors’ hands in coming years thanks to robust efforts by the University of New Mexico to commercialize new technologies.

The Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s technology transfer office, reported a record number of new technologies that faculty shared with the STC in fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30. That included a 50 percent increase in biomedical, or life science breakthroughs entering the STC’s pipeline of potentially marketable inventions.

“We worked hard with the Health Sciences Center this year to increase the number of disclosures by faculty,” STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila said. “We’re seeing real willingness by UNM inventors to work with us to commercialize inventions.”

STC’s growing technology pipeline, plus aggressive efforts to recruit entrepreneurs to develop and market them, led to a record 46 marketing licenses acquired by investors in FY 2012. In addition, seven new startup companies were formed last year based on UNM inventions.

“We’re kind of on a roll now,” Kuuttila said. “Momentum is building.”

The success of UNM’s technology transfer program, which began in 1995, reflects major changes put in place since 2004, when Kuuttila became head of the STC. Kuuttila, a 30-year veteran of technology commercialization who previously headed tech transfer at Iowa State University, Purdue University and the University of Georgia, has worked to build a “culture of innovation” at UNM.

Faculty involvement

That includes outreach to get faculty to consider commercial applications for their lab work, disclose new discoveries to the STC and work with the tech-transfer office to patent them. The STC also launched a “gap fund” that awards small grants to UNM researchers to further develop promising technologies. It created the Lobo VentureLab to provide office space and technical support to incubate new companies on campus. It stepped up direct and online marketing efforts to interest entrepreneurs and investors in UNM inventions. And it built a local support network of businesspeople and venture capitalists to reinforce those efforts.

The STC has forged a particularly close relationship with the New Mexico Angels, a group of individual investors who pool their resources to provide seed funding to startup companies.

“We’re one of the early reviewers of technology coming out of the university,” said Angels President John Chavez. “We’ve formed more than half a dozen companies, and we have two more options to license UNM technologies now.”

Thanks to STC efforts, faculty invention disclosures have grown 85 percent since 2004. Patent filings have increased by 43 percent, issued patents 58 percent and licensing agreements 188 percent. More than 50 startup companies have formed to market UNM technologies.

University earnings

The university earned $2.92 million in income from licenses and patents last year. That’s down from a peak of $3.98 million in FY 2010, but it’s still more than six times higher than the $391,000 the STC earned in 2004. In fact, since the STC surpassed the annual income threshold of $1 million for the first time in FY 2009, UNM has earned $11.3 million. That compares to $6.87 million during the entire 13 previous years from FY 1996 to FY 2008.

Investors are working to commercialize a range of inventions in the life science, nanotechnology and engineering fields. The seven companies that formed last year, for example, are marketing: a device to prevent accidental mixing of diesel fuel and gasoline when trucks deliver fuel to filling stations; a medical device to instantly screen patients for infectious diseases; a new catalyst technology for fuel cells; a new treatment method to reduce brain damage from stroke; a web-based program for statin management and treatment of cardiovascular patients; and a new algae strain for biofuel production.

New life science discoveries are spurred on by advances in biomedical engineering at UNM, which created a Biomedical Engineering Center in 2005. The center brings together many scientific disciplines on campus to create new devices and methods to diagnose and treat disease. They rely on engineering advances in everything from optics to computer science and electronics that allow scientists to apply new tools to solve medical problems.

Motivating professors

UNM Health Sciences Center has made a concerted effort this past year to motivate faculty to share inventions with the tech transfer office and to work with more scientists from other disciplines on biomedical breakthroughs.

“That’s led to a lot more inventions being filed with the STC,” said Executive Vice Chancellor Dr. Richard Larson. “We believe this process will create more public and private sector partnerships to advance products and improve public health.”

The center has held training sessions to help faculty better understand the commercialization process and to encourage partnerships with entrepreneurs and investors. It also created a program to bring physicians and medical researchers together with engineers, physicists, chemists and others in brainstorming sessions to cooperatively develop marketable biomedical technologies, Larson said.

Anderson School of Management Dean Doug Brown said technology transfer takes a long time to succeed, but it has many benefits, such as creating jobs, getting new technology into the market and improving UNM’s ability to attract talented researchers.