A patch for a beating heart, an underwater adhesive and a new kind of needle for laparoscopic surgery are among the technologies the University of Arizona is nurturing toward the marketplace.
Tech Launch Arizona has awarded about $1.1 million in grants this fiscal year to support 28 faculty inventions as part of its Asset Development Program, which helps advance UA inventions that aren’t yet ready to attract technology licensees, or investors for potential startup companies.
Tech Launch, the UA’s technology commercialization arm, has already exhausted available program funds for the current fiscal year ending June 30, doubling the number of projects and money awarded in fiscal 2015.
Not every faculty discovery or invention has immediate commercial potential, but the asset-development program is focused on identifying and refining those with promise, said David Allen, vice president of Tech Launch Arizona.
“We basically take that very early (invention) disclosure, understand what the faculty are interested in, and then we do a pretty deep dive,” Allen said. “Basically what we’re seeking is to understand a technology for its patent potential and market potential.”
For most of the technologies the goal is patent licensing, but depending on the invention, the market potential and the passion of the faculty member, they could become the seed for a startup company.
The Asset Development Program, formerly known as Wheelhouse Arizona, is funded mainly through the UA’s share of the Technology and Research Initiative Fund, which provides university funding for tech research from state sales taxes.
Money for about 85 percent to 90 percent of the asset-development grants in the past year came from the state tech funding, which is focused on specific technology areas. The rest came from a UA fund made up of proceeds, such as royalties, from the licensing of university technologies, Allen said.
In fiscal 2015, the UA collected more than $2.3 million in revenue from royalties and patent reimbursements for UA intellectual property.
The asset-development grants, Allen said, are part of a step-by-step process to foster ideas ripe for commercialization and prepare them for licensing or startup companies.
A team of “commercialization partners” — a dozen local entrepreneurs and business leaders — as well as three mentors-in-residence and local tech companies help Tech Launch evaluate faculty inventions for their potential for licensing and chances in the marketplace.
Ideas deemed to have the highest patent and market potential are further refunded to meet market needs, and grants generally ranging from $35,000 to $50,000 are mostly awarded to the faculty inventors to advance their work.
The inventors agree to a scope of work, certain “deliverables” and a budget.
“It’s not just the performance of the technology related to this trajectory in the market, it’s also the performance of the inventor, and whether they are truly engaged,” Allen said.
While most inventions end up being offered for outside licensing, some are picked to form the basis of startup companies.
“For startups, we look for a strong business driver, a business model that makes sense, the beginning or plans for a team to carry the technology forward and strong corporate governance,” said Joann MacMaster, director of business development for Tech Launch Arizona.
The UA then uses its commercialization partners and mentors-in-residence to help put the company on the right paths and assemble experienced management to succeed.
“Inventors are typically not the best CEOs. They want to be engaged and they’re engaged at different levels,” MacMaster said.
Besides the commercialization partners and mentors, the UA has set up a network of 1,300 subject-matter experts nationwide — many of them UA alums — to help startups find needed talent and resources.
The UA startups can also plug into a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem, including Startup Tucson, the Arizona Center for Innovation at the UA Tech Park, and the Desert Angels investing group, to find resources they need to advance.
Tech Launch also sometimes contracts with local companies to provide technical expertise to help with product development, Allen said.
For example, Tucson-based Aztera LLC, which specializes in technology and product development, is helping to develop a robotic cleaning system for air-conditioning and industrial chillers invented by a UA facilities-management technician.
Aztera President Manny Teran said prototype development is critical for early-stage companies to show investors their products are real.
“Prototyping is a critical piece — without it, the entrepreneur or whomever is developing the idea is relying on charts and graphs,” Teran said.
Some faculty, MacMaster said, have their eyes set on a startup at the outset, such as UA Sarver Heart Center cardiologist Dr. Steven Goldman, who invented a new method for transplanting living cells to repair diseased hearts in what’s been called a “beating heart patch.”
Another inventor, Palash Gangopadhyay, a Ph.D. staff researcher in the College of Optical Sciences, wanted to spawn a startup company from his invention of a new “nanopillar” electrode for lithium-ion batteries.
But while working on that invention, Gangopadhyay made a new discovery in his lab. The UA now plans to license out the original technology and pursue his new invention, MacMaster said.
The UA has boosted the number of tech startups in recent years, and has about 35 startup projects in its pipeline, but Tech Launch isn’t focused on those numbers, MacMaster said.
“Our goal is not to hit a startup number, it’s to make sure those startups are successful,” she said.