Editorial: A rainforest that works – even in the New Mexico desert - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: A rainforest that works – even in the New Mexico desert

(Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
(Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The rainforest is an ecosystem that nurtures growth.

That’s true in the Amazon where the rainforest functions as the planet’s lungs. And it’s true right here in Albuquerque where the University of New Mexico’s Rainforest Innovations has become what UNM President Garnett Stokes describes as a key driver for the state’s economic engine as it works to take research done at UNM and help bring it to market.

Launched in 1995 as the Science and Technology Corp., it has evolved over the years from a two-person operation into a board with 22 members working to be a catalyst for broad entrepreneurial development in Albuquerque. It has provided critical leadership and support to build Innovate ABQ, the high-tech research and development hub at Central and Broadway.

Former UNM President Robert Frank deserves credit for his work in broadening the concept – after his experience with it at the University of Florida – and working aggressively to bring business and political leaders into the effort. And one of the constants in recent years is Lisa Kuuttila, chief economic development officer, and the person who makes the Rainforest a success day in and day out.

The statistics are impressive. Since 1996, STC and its Rainforest Innovations successor have filed 1,628 patent applications and received 754 issued patents based on work by UNM researchers – most from Health Sciences and Engineering. Investors have signed 733 licensing agreements for UNM technology, with 160 startups formed to take inventions to market. Kuuttila says 60% are still in business – a good number in a high-risk entrepreneurial world – and 50 are now active in New Mexico, creating jobs, bringing money into the community and helping diversify the local economy. Meanwhile, royalties to UNM have grown, with the university receiving $25.5 million from 2010-2019.

And it’s about more than money.

The research that can lead to patents and products has the potential to be life-changing. Make that life-saving. Consider the work by UNM’s Angela Wandinger-Ness and supported by Rainforest Innovations to develop a therapeutic for treatment of ovarian cancer.

Her technology is the basis of a startup in Boston called Revere Pharma. The company is in the early stages and fundraising, with a goal of getting to clinical trials in humans.

What would success for just this one project look like?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says ovarian cancer is the second-most common gynecologic cancer in the United States and causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. The American Cancer Society estimates 21,750 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2020. The estimated 2020 death toll from ovarian cancer is 13,200.

Imagine what it would mean to have an effective treatment.

Things like analyzing research, obtaining patents and defending against infringement might sound a bit egg-headed and wonky. Then again, Einstein had a touch of that himself.

The point here on the 25th anniversary of science and technology commercialization at UNM is that important work is going on, nurtured today by a Rainforest Innovations ecosystem that stretches possibilities beyond things that were once only in the imagination.

That’s a good thing for Albuquerque, the country and the world.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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