Publishing results in an academic journal or presenting them at a national conference represents a finish line for many researchers. For those looking to transfer their work from public institution to private industry, however, this finish line becomes a starting point.
The UNL-based trio of NUtech Ventures, Nebraska Innovation Campus, and the Office of Research and Economic Development has sought to ease the journey by forging an infrastructure that links researchers with the companies, investors and agencies that can help commercialize their work.
“Companies bring product development ideas, dollars and motivation, and (UNL) brings creativity, infrastructure and scientific competency. It can be a win-win,” said Brad Roth, associate vice chancellor for technology development at NUtech Ventures. “And we have no preconceived assumptions about where innovation and technology can come from on campus. They can come from anywhere.”
The commercialization of faculty-driven technology and techniques can take many forms, said Ryan Anderson, director of industry relations for UNL. Some companies directly approach the university with opportunities or problems that they hope UNL researchers can address, Anderson said. In other cases, faculty inquire about collaborating on industry research, licensing technology to existing companies or founding their own start-up companies.
Roth, Anderson and Dan Duncan, executive director of Nebraska Innovation Campus, frequently meet with researchers to gain a working knowledge of emerging innovations and their potential applications in the marketplace. These discussions also accelerate the asking and answering of questions that help determine whether and how to proceed. Chief among them: Could the innovation be protected by patents? Does it have commercial value that end users would pay for? What’s the timeline for further research and development? Could it be scaled up for manufacturing?
“It’s not just about making money; it’s also about getting good science into the right hands so that it can make a difference in people’s lives,” Roth said. “(But) if it doesn’t go down a commercial path — where there’s intellectual property protection around it and around an investment that is sometimes extremely large — few will take a chance on it. Very often, a commercial path is the way to have societal impact.”
Such was the case with Stephen DiMagno, a professor of chemistry who developed a proprietary process for synthesizing compounds used in positron emission tomography. PET scans have proven critical in diagnosing and studying patients who contend with cancer and neurodegenerative afflictions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
After developing a process that yielded especially potent fluorine-based compounds more efficiently and reliably than existing methods, DiMagno contacted NUtech about starting his own company to make them readily available for clinical use.
“When an academic lab says, ‘This is a finished product,’ that is actually the beginning of the research project for the commercial implementation,” DiMagno said. “And when you start a company for the first time, you don’t really know what a deal should look like, so you need advice. Naturally, I talked with NUtech, and they agreed to bring in an outside consultant who had expertise in the commercial space.”
Having secured an exclusive worldwide license for using his synthesis technique in health applications, DiMagno founded Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals in 2012. He asked his consultant to become president and CEO of Ground Fluor, with DiMagno serving as director and chair of the company’s scientific advisory board.
The company has since transferred its technology to generate radiopharmaceuticals at numerous academic hospitals, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Stanford University, Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Iowa.
“One of the challenges of launching a start-up company in Nebraska is that, though there are resources and investors, there aren’t as many as in places like Boston or San Francisco,” DiMagno said. “There have been many efforts to lower that barrier, and NUtech, Nebraska Innovation Campus and the state’s Department of Economic Development will continue to be key players in that process.”