UNM-linked startup launches accelerating - Albuquerque Journal

UNM-linked startup launches accelerating

The $90 million sale of the Albuquerque-based medical diagnostic technology firm bizO-RobinsonAvila_Kevin_BizO_TechIntelliCyt Corp. in June to a global German corporation is a shining success story for the University of New Mexico.

The startup, which launched in 2006 with technology licensed through UNM’s Science and Technology Corp., was acquired by the pharmaceutical firm Sartorius AG, an industry giant with $1.5 billion in annual revenue and operations in 110 countries.

UNM could earn nearly $1 million from the sale after cashing out its stock. And, despite acquisition by a European company, IntelliCyt will continue to operate in New Mexico with its current 55-employee workforce.

“It’s a big win for us,” said STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila. “I’d call it a home run.”

University of New Mexico professor Jim Plusquellic, left, with Ph.D. candidates Wenjie Che, center, and Dylan Ismari test hardware security computer chips at a lab at UNM. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)
University of New Mexico professor Jim Plusquellic, left, with Ph.D. candidates Wenjie Che, center, and Dylan Ismari test hardware security computer chips at a lab at UNM. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

It may be a harbinger of a lot more success to come, given that dozens of other startups are now working in New Mexico and other states to commercialize a broad range of UNM technology licensed through the STC.

In the past 10 years, 78 new startups have formed with UNM innovation, about 60 percent of which are still in business. Some 75 percent of them are located in New Mexico.

Now, the pace of startup formation is accelerating. Twelve new businesses formed with UNM technology in the fiscal year that ended in June, according to the latest STC statistics compiled for FY 2016. That’s up from nine startups that formed in each of the past three years and is the largest number of new businesses to launch in a single year since the technology transfer program began in 1996.

“That’s the big news for this past year – a dozen new startups,” Kuuttila said. “Until now, the most we’d done in a single year was nine.”

All told, the university signed 54 licensing deals with companies in FY 2016 to take university inventions to market. That’s up from 50 last year and just 25 a decade ago.

The tech transfer program earned at least $2.51 million in royalties and patent income for UNM this year. Those numbers are still preliminary and are expected to climb as more technology licensees report their sales revenue for FY 2016 to STC in the coming weeks, Kuuttila said. The university earned $2.73 million in FY 2015 and just $938,000 10 years ago.

UNM also reported 69 new patents issued by the federal government last year for university inventions. That’s up from 46 in FY 2015 and is by far the most ever issued to UNM in a single year. In STC’s last peak year in 2013, the government issued 51 patents to UNM.

The National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association included UNM again this year on its annual list of 100 universities and research organizations worldwide receiving U.S. patents. It’s the third year in a row UNM has made the list, released July 12.

The jump in patents, plus more than 100 invention disclosures by UNM faculty and staff every year, reflects a huge change in university culture that is helping to fuel technology transfer, said Joe Cecchi, dean of the UNM School of Engineering and a longtime member of the STC board, which he chaired for seven years.

“We just continue to improve every year,” Cecchi said. “STC has done a great job of helping faculty to get their intellectual property protected and to get it out into startups. It’s led to a real change in culture where faculty and staff are actively participating, because they see everything that’s happening and they want to be a part of it.”

That’s particularly true at the UNM Health Science Center, where technology innovation led to more than three dozen startup companies in the past decade.

In FY 2016, for example, five of the 12 startups that formed are marketing technology from the Health Science Center. That includes things such as new sensors and molecular compounds for medical diagnostics, and therapies for prostate cancer and inflammatory neurological disorders.

“We’ve created training programs to help our faculty learn how to work with private companies and what to expect when they do,” said Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor for the Health Science Center. “Our faculty are encouraged because this allows their inventions to have societal impact. That’s very motivating for them.”

STC’s unique collaboration with the New Mexico Angels, a group of about 70 individuals who pool their resources to invest in new companies, is also helping to pull a lot more technology out of UNM labs and into the market.

The Angels created three of the 12 startups this past year. Those companies are commercializing new computer encryption technology, a device from a UNM mechanical engineering professor, that could allow people to temporarily color their hair or create hair designs with the swipe of a handheld wand, and a new drug to ease acute inflammation and slow the progress of multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders.

“We’re creating opportunities for our investors with technology from both UNM’s main campus and the Health Science Center,” said NM Angels President John Chavez. “It’s a good model that’s working to create more technology-based companies in New Mexico.”

UNM President Robert Frank and other university and community leaders are hoping the new Innovate ABQ initiative to create a high-tech research and development hub in the heart of Albuquerque will accelerate technology transfer even more. UNM, in cooperation with local government and private-sector leaders, broke ground last week on the first building at the Innovate ABQ site at Central and Broadway Downtown.

“President Frank’s support for technology transfer has been critical in moving these efforts forward,” Cecchi said. “Our local leaders understand what this can do for economic development and they’re providing key support for it.”

One ongoing concern, however, is the low level of early-stage capital available in New Mexico for startups, which may have contributed to five of the 12 startups formed this year being located in other states, such as California, Kuuttila said. Last year, seven of the nine startups that formed chose to locate in New Mexico.

“I’m worried about more of our startups going out of state,” Kuuttila said. “Clearly we have great technology and we’re doing good outreach to investors to take it to market. But we just don’t have as much money in New Mexico to help build and grow companies as they do in some other places.”

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