A novel ointment for topical treatment of HPV-induced warts and pre-cancers won first place at this year’s bioscience shark tank for University of New Mexico researchers in mid-November.
A three-member panel of judges, all local entrepreneurs, selected viral oncology professor Michelle Ozbun’s research as the winner in a pitch competition with other UNM investigators who presented on a new microfiber to make face masks more comfortable and effective in filtering viruses, and use of nanoparticles to prevent tooth and gum disease.
The on-campus competition took place Nov. 11 at the fourth annual BioVenture Partnership Event, which UNM’s Clinical and Translational Science Center and the New Mexico Bioscience Authority jointly launched in 2018. It brings faculty, students, local entrepreneurs and investors together for presentations, a poster display highlighting new bioscience discoveries, and plenty of networking, said Eric Prossnitz, a Department of Internal Medicine professor and chair of the BioVenture planning committee.
“There’s lots of innovation at UNM and among local companies and entities, but not many opportunities to all gather in one place,” Prossnitz told the Journal. “This brings everyone together to connect and maybe inspire more investment in new and existing companies that can market cutting-edge technology to improve health care.”
The BioVenture partnership is one of many programs and initiatives underway at UNM to help pull emerging technology from lab to marketplace, reflecting a vibrant local startup ecosystem that UNM and the New Mexico Startup Factory are now working to spread to other research universities in the western U.S. through a new, $3.25 million grant that the National Institutes of Health approved in September. Under the three-year grant, the partners expect to educate and mentor faculty on the fundamentals of technology transfer at 11 universities in seven states: New Mexico, Alaska, Idaho, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming.
The UNM Health Sciences Center and the Anderson School of Management’s Innovation Academy are collaborating on the initiative, which will draw on extensive tech-transfer experience developed at UNM over many years, said Academy Executive Director Rob DelCampo.
“We want to take what we’ve developed here in technology transfer and spread it out across multiple states,” DelCampo told the Journal. “At its core, this is all about building a new culture of entrepreneurship on university campuses to create the groundswell needed to push technology transfer forward.”
UNM has developed its own entrepreneurial culture over many years, beginning in 1996 when it launched the university’s first tech-transfer program through the Science and Technology Corporation. The STC, now rebranded as Rainforest Innovations, has spearheaded yearslong educational and promotional programs to encourage all faculty to disclose their research and innovation so tech-transfer professionals can patent and market it for licensing to investors.
As a result, campuswide faculty disclosures grew from just 18 in 1996 to an average of 50 per year in the first decade after launching the tech-transfer office. It’s since exploded to an annual average of 113 disclosures over the last decade, according to Rainforest metrics.
That’s created a pipeline of new, commercially viable technologies, leading to more than 800 issued patents, 817 technology-licensing agreements, and 155 startups formed with UNM innovations since 1996.
UNM health sciences is particularly active, thanks to cutting-edge technology from the health sciences system, plus a myriad of programs to train, mentor and assist faculty and students in product commercialization, said Doug Ziedonis, UNM Health System CEO and executive vice president for UNM health sciences.
In addition, Rainforest Innovations and Anderson’s Innovation Academy – which provides entrepreneurship courses and hands-on business training for students – have encouraged interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students from health sciences, engineering and business administration to collaborate on marketing new technologies.
“It’s all about team effort,” Ziedonis told the Journal. “… You need to cultivate collaboration and transdisciplinary research.”
That begins with educating academics about the benefits of technology transfer, especially in the health sciences, where many professors think just publishing their research will inspire investors to take it to market, Prossnitz said. But it generally takes millions of dollars to commercialize new drugs or health tools, and that won’t happen without patent protection, real-world efficacy testing of new products and services, and “customer discovery” to prove there’s a market for it.
“You have to change (academic) culture to get people involved,” Prossnitz said. “… Once you explain these things, it makes sense to faculty, and that’s where all the tech-transfer training and programs come in.”
It also takes a village, or mature ecosystem, to make it happen, something local incubators and accelerators have been building for years, including the NM Startup Factory, which launched 15 companies over the past decade to commercialize technology from UNM and other state universities and labs. It’s now building a comprehensive, online set of educational products and services in partnership with UNM to provide assistance to the western universities covered under the new NIH grant, said Startup Factory President John Chavez.
That will include everything from Innovation Academy curriculum, training and online mentoring services to assistance with patenting technology and applying for federal research grants.
“We’ll educate researchers on what it means to take biomedical products from bench to market,” Chavez told the Journal. “And we’ll put boots on the ground to go out to institutions with our project managers to provide customized assistance.”
The project could significantly raise UNM’s regional and national prestige.
“It definitely establishes us as a leader in these states,” DelCampo said. “People are now looking to us to do what we’ve done in technology transfer.”