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UNM Rainforest Innovations celebrates 25 years

The Rainforest Innovation Academy (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With COVID-19 still raging and New Mexico under new lock-down orders, a silver anniversary bash is off the table for the University of New Mexico’s Rainforest Innovations.

But the university’s technology transfer and economic development program has a lot to celebrate after 25 years in operation, UNM President Garnett Stokes told Rainforest enthusiasts in an online Zoom celebration Tuesday.

“Rainforest Innovations has become one of the key drivers for the state’s economic engine,” Stokes said. “It’s supporting brilliant minds to come up with unconventional solutions to solve complex problems.”

Launched in 1995, the tech transfer program has evolved immensely over the years, growing from a two-person operation focused on taking university

Garnett Stokes

inventions to market into a 22-member catalyst for broad entrepreneurial development in the heart of Albuquerque. It’s provided critical leadership and support to build Innovate ABQ, the high-tech research and development hub at Central and Broadway Downtown that now represents the epicenter of Albuquerque’s startup economy.

That Innovation District encompasses a lot of public and private partners, including the state’s research universities, national labs, government entities and business organizations that come together there to collectively pursue entrepreneurship as a motor force for individual and community growth. And Rainforest Innovations is at the center of it, housed in UNM’s six-story Lobo Rainforest Building that opened in 2017 on the seven-acre Innovate ABQ campus, where it works to nurture cutting-edge creativity, Stokes said.

“It’s always looking to make human connections, encouraging networking and bringing people together,” Stokes said. “… And through it all, it’s making our state a much more attractive place for our leaders of tomorrow.”

‘Rainforest’ of today

Today, the program’s overriding goal is to create a “Rainforest in the Desert,” through which a vibrant human ecosystem functions like a rainforest where human creativity, business acumen, scientific discovery, investment capital and more come together to nurture budding ideas into flourishing and sustainable enterprises, according to the program website.

Rob DelCampo is the executive director of UNM’s Rainforest Innovation Academy.

Reflecting that mission, last summer UNM changed the program’s name to Rainforest Innovations, ending its previous 25-year run as the Science and Technology Corp. The new name embraces its expanded role beyond tech transfer to include responsibility for leading UNM’s economic development initiatives to drive growth in New Mexico, which the university added to the mission in 2013.

Tech transfer, however, remains a central part of everything. From the start, the program has worked to encourage faculty and staff to disclose new inventions and protect them through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with assistance from Rainforest staff. Once disclosed, staff work to license those technologies to businesses and investors to take them to market, either through existing commercial enterprises or through new startup companies.

The PNM Bar in the lobby of the Lobo Rainforest Building, where UNM’s 25-year-old tech-transfer organization is housed.

Those efforts have generated impressive achievements over the past 25 years, said long-time Rainforest board member Gregg Mayer during last week’s Zoom anniversary celebration.

Since 1996, UNM researchers have disclosed 2,222 new inventions to Rainforest Innovations. The program, in turn, has filed 1,628 patent applications, receiving 754 issued patents, Mayer said. And to date, investors have signed 733 licensing agreements for UNM technology, with nearly 160 new startup companies formed to take those inventions to market.

Of those, 60% remain in business today, said Rainforest Innovations CEO and Chief Economic Development Officer Lisa Kuuttila.

Lisa Kuuttila

“Fifty of them are active startups in New Mexico,” Kuuttila told the Journal. “They’re creating jobs, bringing money into the community, and helping to diversify the local economy.”

Over the years, UNM income from technology licenses, royalties and other Rainforest activities has grown exponentially, generating $25.5 million over the 10-year period from 2010-2019. That compares with a total of just $6.71 million over the first 15 years of program operation from 1996-2009.

And in fiscal year 2020, which ended on June 30, annual income leapt to $52.3 million, thanks to two settlements from lawsuits that UNM initiated last year against seven different companies for patent infringement of university-developed semiconductor technology.

“That was certainly a home run for us, although the legal suits are done on a contingency basis, so the law firm representing UNM gets 40% off the top,” Kuuttila said.

Even so, the settlements allowed Rainforest Innovations to distribute $8.5 million in dividends among 73 UNM inventors in FY 2020.

UNM impact

UNM now ranks as a premier university for commercial endeavors. It placed 61st last year on the annual list of top 100 universities and research organizations worldwide that receive U.S. patents, published by the National Academy of Inventors and Intellectual Property Owners Association. And among 18 “peer” institutions nationwide, UNM ranks eighth in number of faculty and staff invention disclosures, first in number of licensing agreements, and second in number of startup companies formed.

The pandemic has forced Rainforest Innovations to move all programming online, leaving empty corridors at UNM’s Lobo Rainforest Building. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Beyond transferring technology from lab to market, UNM has markedly expanded its activities to encompass a wide range of entrepreneurial programs and support for faculty, staff and students, and for the broader community in general.

It launched an Innovation Academy in 2015, housed at the Lobo Rainforest Building Downtown, to build student entrepreneurship by teaching business knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving skills through direct, real-world experience that often includes launching new startups individually and in teams.

Nearly 1,200 students are currently enrolled, said Academy Director Rob DelCampo. And to date, students have launched some 70 startups to market products and services based on their own creative ideas and innovation.

A small business forum at the Lobo Rainforest Building in 2019 drew a crowd. The building’s halls have been empty since March.

An $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program has allowed the Academy and Rainforest Innovations to enroll up to 15 student teams per semester in an iCorp accelerator program to develop commercialization strategies for UNM technologies. The teams receive a $3,000 stipend to finance their activities, and if their technologies and strategies are deemed viable, they become eligible to apply for $50,000 NSF grants to continue marketing efforts.

Separately, a Tech Navigator Challenge launched in 2017 through which student teams design business plans to take technologies from UNM – and from some of the state’s national laboratories – to market.

To date, about 80 student teams have graduated from the iCorp program, and 40 from the Tech Navigator Challenge, DelCampo said.

UNM also received a $560,000 grant in 2018 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to expand entrepreneurship programs to its branch campuses around the state.

Virus disruption

This year, however, the coronavirus has created significant challenges. Before the pandemic, the Lobo Rainforest Building was bustling with activity as students attended Academy classes, startups housed onsite worked to build their companies, entrepreneurs and tech-transfer professionals met to discuss market endeavors, and Rainforest Innovations and community organizations hosted a steady stream of events and activities.

In March, all that in-person hustle and bustle came to a sharp halt.

Before the pandemic, the Lobo Rainforest Building was bustling was activity. UNM’s tech-transfer organization has moved all of its programming online.

“When the pandemic hit, everything shut down and we had to make a massive shift to online events and activities,” Kuuttila said. “We’ve learned a lot about how to do that successfully, but the piece that’s lost is all the inter-personal networking. We do the best we can, but it’s not the same.”

The impact is showing up in tech-transfer metrics. Patent applications declined by 25% in FY 2020, issued patents by 27%, and licensing deals by 13%, according to program statistics.

Only four new startups formed in FY 2020 with UNM technologies, down from an annual average of 11 new company launches in the previous five years.

“The pandemic definitely affected us there,” Kuuttila said. “When things shut down, many people stopped actively looking at new technologies, whether it was to license them or launch a startup.”

Faculty and staff are still disclosing lots of new technologies, but a concerning trend in women’s participation may be emerging, Kuuttila said. Women were involved in 56% of all invention disclosures in FY 2019, but that fell to 32% in the six-month period from March-September.

“Some national reporting shows that women are more affected by the pandemic, staying home to educate children and leaving the workforce at a higher rate,” Kuuttila said.

Students are still actively involved in Innovation Academy classes, but there’s been a marked drop in iCorp program participation, DelCampo said. That may reflect the intensive, 10-week hands-on curriculum.

“It’s harder to do with COVID, especially if your working to market a new product,” DelCampo said. “We’ve seen fewer new businesses launched by students in the pandemic.”

A courtyard stands empty at Rainforest Innovation Academy Nov. 18. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/ Journal)

On the other hand, few previously-launched student startups have folded, likely because so many are managed online as e-commerce endeavors with very low overhead.

“They operate so lean already,” DelCampo said. “Many students launched them from their dorm rooms.”

Meanwhile, Rainforest Innovations is working to adapt to the pandemic, upgrading its online activities and initiating new programs to assist the business community. In March, it used the EDA funds it received in 2018 for entrepreneurial training at branch campuses to launch a new, eight-week course for all local entrepreneurs throughout the state to learn how to build an e-commerce platform for their businesses.

It’s offered that training three times since the spring, with another cohort scheduled for January, DelCampo said. And the EDA approved another $350,000 in September to expand the program.

The NSF also granted $120,000 more in October to strengthen the iCorp program’s online delivery.

Despite the pandemic, the Rainforest Innovations program remains relevant and involved in New Mexico’s startup economy, with 25 years now under its belt, Kuuttila said.

“We’ve grown into a mature organization and an important partner in the community that’s helping to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem here,” Kuuttila said. “We’ve become an important cog in the wheel of the economy, and a catalyst to help stimulate creativity, innovation and growth.”

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