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Entrepreneurship gains steam at NM Tech

New Mexico Tech is earning recognition as a gem in the desert for marketable, cutting-edge innovation.

The university is already well-known for producing the now-famous “nicotine patch,” an invention created by New Mexico Tech researcher Frank Etscorn that earned tens of millions after the college commercialized it in the 1980s. But now, after five years of concerted efforts to build robust technology-transfer and entrepreneurship programs on campus, investors, entrepreneurs and commercialization professionals from both East and West coasts are taking a hard, fresh look at what New Mexico Tech has to offer.

Second-place “Wolves’ Den” winners Jonna and Brock Witter present to a panel of judges during the pitch competition at the school in Socorro earlier this month. (Courtesy of New Mexico Tech)

“We have about 20 technologies at different stages in the pipeline now,” said Peter Anselmo, executive director of the university’s Office of Innovation and Commercialization. “Nearly half of them are at the end stages in negotiations with investment and marketing firms on both coasts.”

While the college is best-known for its work in mining and petroleum, its marketable breakthroughs include everything from novel biotechnology to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria to innovations in cybersecurity and big data analysis.

Conference momentum

Much of the university’s newfound commercialization momentum is driven by its annual Inventors and Entrepreneurs Workshop, a two-day conference launched in 2016 with help from Larry Udall, a veteran investor and entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley who founded the California Invention Center and the Center for New Venture Alliance at Cal State University. As a technology-transfer consultant, Udall has helped attract prime-time national players every year, many of them repeat participants.

This year’s event, held April 12-13 in Socorro, included executives from Royalty/Revenue Interest Capital in New York and from America Invents Inc. and Science Futures LLC in California. Senior representatives from several West Coast intellectual property firms also attended, as did Katherine Ku, the internationally-recognized technology transfer specialist who headed Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing for nearly three decades.

Venture investors, serial entrepreneurs and state officials from across New Mexico participated as well.

“The conference has brought together people from inside and outside New Mexico to work with us, many of them returning each year,” Anselmo said. “We’ve been able to expose New Mexico Tech to the local and national venture business community. People see us now as a place where innovation happens.”

The conference features educational panels and presentations on moving ideas from conception to market, plus a special, closed-door session for inventors from New Mexico Tech and other state institutions to discuss select technologies with investors and venture professionals.

Wolves’ Den

The event culminates with the “Wolves’ Den,” a “Shark Tank”-style pitch competition in which local teams compete for $10,000 in cash prizes and in-kind services. Although the pitch is open to local community inventors, it’s generally dominated by student teams from New Mexico Tech and other schools, particularly Luna Community College in Las Vegas, where the science, technology, engineering and math department has worked to encourage participation.

It helps to build confidence and skills among community college students, many of whom go on to undergraduate and graduate studies at New Mexico Tech, said Luna STEM Director Francisco Apodaca.

“It builds character and confidence and improves their abilities and skills,” Apodaca said. “And it’s a great venue for exposure to world-class inventors, attorneys, and venture investors who help educate students about how to move forward with entrepreneurial ideas.”

Workshop winners

To date, about 40 Luna students have participated, with 10 selected to pitch in the competition since 2016. Half of them have won cash prizes, including Jake Taylor, a pre-engineering and computer science student who took first place this year, winning $5,000 for developing a new method to speed soil testing for road construction.

“I still can’t believe I won,” said Taylor, 25. “My idea wasn’t the best one in the competition, but the judges liked that I had a full plan worked out to do something with it.”

Jonna and Brock Witter, a married couple studying at New Mexico Tech, won the second-place, $3,500 prize for a remote-controlled device to shut down vehicles in motion. The device, still in design and prototyping, could be marketed for defense and law enforcement purposes.

“We got great feedback from the Wolve’s Den judges and others at the conference,” Jonna said. “To rub shoulders with these people who are such experts in business has helped put us in a different place professionally.”

The Witters now plan to apply for a federal small business innovation grant and seek assistance through the state Economic Development Department.

“There are a lot of wonderful programs now for small business owners in New Mexico,” Brock said. “We’re learning our way through the system.”

Tech transfer goals

Encouraging and educating students to pursue entrepreneurship is a central part of the university’s technology-transfer goals. The college launched a Center for Leadership in Technology Commercialization in 2014 that offers courses and hands-on experience for students to acquire knowledge and skills to guide technology to market.

About $400,000 in private donations provides annual financing for student teams to conduct marketing studies and other tasks to help university researchers commercialize new innovations. To date, more than 100 students have participated, Anselmo said.

The university created the Office of Innovation and Commercialization that Anselmo heads about 18 months ago to work with academics at the earliest stages of their research.

“We want to catch inventions very early to assess market impact from the start,” Anselmo said. “We formed a committee of outside experts that meets once per month to assist us.”

A $100,000 grant from the New Mexico Gas Co. will also finance a new, 1,000-square-foot startup incubator the university plans to open off campus in Socorro.

Innovation efforts attract local, national attention, investors

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