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Fueling tech transfer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The University of New Mexico has become a prime breeding ground for high-tech startup companies.

UNM inventions licensed to private investors and entrepreneurs through the Science and Technology Corp., the university’s technology transfer office, have led to creation of more than 60 new businesses since the STC launched in 1995. In fact, when the current fiscal year ends on June 30, UNM will have achieved an annual record in startup formation, with nine new companies created.

Nearly three dozen are operating in New Mexico, including 29 scattered around Albuquerque. That includes everything from biotechnology companies trying to commercialize new drugs and medical devices to hardware and software firms developing cybersecurity and other systems.

Some now have dozens of high-wage employees. About 30 people, for example, work at nanoMR Inc., which is commercializing UNM technology to rapidly detect and identify blood infections. Another 30 work at IntelliCyt Corp., which sells a super-fast cytometry system invented at UNM to do cell analysis for medical diagnostics and drug discovery.

But despite such success, STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila says it’s not enough. She wants to see a lot more companies taking UNM technologies to market, and she wants them to grow into flourishing businesses that offer scores of high-paying jobs.

‘The next level’

“We want to move to the next level to help these companies really take off,” Kuuttila said. “We believe some of these companies have the potential to create hundreds of jobs with a big impact on our economy.”

To do that, UNM is spearheading a new economic development strategy to build a thriving, high-tech business district in the heart of Albuquerque. It would not only house university-related startups, but would attract many more technology-related businesses and service companies as part of a new “innovation hub.” It would be a place where investors, entrepreneurs and professionals gather, share ideas and resources, and set up shop to build firms that could, eventually, employ hundreds of people, providing long-term career opportunities for local college students.

“It will be a place where people congregate, hold events, attend programs and work on projects and businesses,” Kuuttila said. “We’ll start with an incubator building for startups that either launch with UNM technologies or that form independently and want to locate there. As a hub concept, we also expect to attract many service providers, such as accountants, attorneys, and software and Web developers.”

Uniting the community

The strategy seeks to accelerate and expand tech transfer at UNM by moving beyond licensing inventions. Rather, it aims to unite the university community with New Mexico’s broader community in a shared effort to turn academic knowledge and expertise into successful business endeavors.

The approach reflects an emerging strategy universities nationwide. In fact, it’s modeled on a project at the University of Florida at Gainesville, which launched a 45,000-square-foot incubator in 2011 as part of a 40-acre development zone called “Innovation Square.” That project is now attracting a broad array of university-related startups, plus many large, established companies that want to locate near the university to gain access to its resources, said Ed Poppell, who heads Innovation Square development efforts.

Poppell said building such high-tech hubs is critical in today’s economy, where growth tends to come more from companies involved in innovative science and technology, rather than from heavy industry and manufacturing.

“The new economy is reliant on what we call ‘knowledge workers,’” Poppell told the Journal. “Companies want to locate next to universities, because that’s where the talent, or the brain trust is.”

Innovation model

Unlike a typical, university-connected research park, Innovation Square includes student dorms, and will eventually include apartments, a hotel and lots of retail businesses to create a bustling, high-tech center where students, professionals and entrepreneurs “live, work and play.”

That reflects the needs of young students today who seek lifestyles that integrate work with social and leisure activities and who, by and large, will constitute the knowledge workers of tomorrow, Poppell said.

UNM President Bob Frank said he wants to replicate that model in Albuquerque.

“Everywhere I go in the state, people are talking about how to create these knowledge jobs in New Mexico,” Frank said. “Everyone realizes that we have to change how we work to do that.”

That means creating the right conditions for new high-tech businesses and jobs to emerge.

“It’s all about entrepreneurialism,” Frank said. “UNM has been helping to launch startups for many years, but I want to greatly increase the pace, and we can’t do that by ourselves. We need to reach out to make this a broad community goal.”

Progress locally

The university has been quite successful so far at unifying public officials, businesspeople and professionals behind the new initiative, which goes by the working title Innovate ABQ.

UNM created an Economic Development Advisory Group last fall with more than two dozen university and community leaders to work on Innovate ABQ and other economic development initiatives. In addition, prominent public- and private-sector officials accompanied UNM leaders on a visit to Innovation Square last January. And, the City Council has approved $2 million in city bond funding to help launch Innovate ABQ.

Mayor Richard Berry said the time is right for such leadership.

“I believe we can put our resources together to create a real synergy and catalyst environment for technology transfer,” Berry told the Journal. “I call it ‘mind to market,’ taking creativity and getting it into the pipeline of the marketplace. That’s how we can create jobs in the city of Albuquerque.”

Apart from unifying the community around the innovation hub initiative, UNM is also pursuing a new theory for building high-tech economies in general by creating and nurturing a “human rainforest.” That theory, developed by prominent national venture capitalists in the book “The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley,” calls for broad sectors of the local community to network and interact together to encourage “collisions,” or spontaneous interactions among people that can generate innovative ideas and business endeavors.

Community connection

“What we’re really doing here is implementing the rainforest model by acting as a big connector in the community,” Kuuttila said. “We want to create many opportunities for collisions, because innovation occurs at those collision points.”

Local investors say the Rainforest concept and initiatives like Innovate ABQ are key stepping stones to increasing technology transfer, not just at UNM, but at the national laboratories and at other research institutions in New Mexico.

“There are so many potential startups here with ideas that can change the world, but we still don’t have a culture of commercialization for technology, so we need to develop that culture more,” said Stuart Rose, a serial entrepreneur who founded The BioScience Center last year, Albuquerque’s first biotechnology business incubator. “I believe we’re well poised to move to the next level here, but it will require a huge effort by many different community groups working together.”