The University of Buffalo, with the help of the New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Academic Research (NYSTAR), has stepped up its collaboration with the biotechnology industry in the Buffalo Niagara region — and Depew, NY-based research tool maker Reichert stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries.
Reichert and UB’s Office of Science Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach, also known as STOR, last week announced a research partnership enabled by a $750,000 NYSTAR grant to further develop and market the company’s cell volume cytometer for drug-discovery and diagnostic applications.
In addition, Reichert was one of 13 regional life sciences companies or organizations last year to receive a portion of $1 million in annual support provided by NYSTAR to the UB Center for Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology to support applied research collaborations with UB researchers.
The $750,000 grant was awarded to Reichert last year through NYSTAR’s Technology Transfer Incentive Program, or TTIP, a NYSTAR-sponsored program that funds university-industry collaboration in New York State as a means for speeding the commercialization of university research — much like federal Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants.
Michael Fowler, a commercialization manager at UB STOR, said that a portion of this grant will go toward funding the recently signed sponsored research agreement between UB and Reichert.
“This allows Reichert to have some of the research needed to fully develop the prototype to be subsidized by the state,” Fowler said. “There is a lot of application data and fine tuning that needs to be done. That grant is meant to handle that so it can get the product to the market.”
NYSTAR awards TTIP grants twice yearly to New York State universities who have partnered with a company — often times a spin-out of the school, although not in Reichert’s case — to commercialize laboratory research. “The idea is to help local New York State companies pick these technologies up and get them on to the market,” Fowler said. The company partner is also required to match the grant.
The UB-Reichert TTIP grant is supporting ongoing collaborative research between the company and Frederick Sachs, a professor of physiology and biophysical sciences at UB. Sachs and Susan Hua, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, are the primary inventors of the cell volume cytometer technology, which Reichert has licensed from UB.
Fowler said that Sachs is likely most well-known for isolating a protein from spider venom that has found use in treating cardiac and muscular disorders. But along the way he has developed a number of research tools such as the cell volume cytometer, new cantilever designs for atomic force microscopy, and electronics-based sensors for studying cell membrane ion channels.
“He’s is an interesting character in that this is not his main focus,” Fowler said. “He studies membrane channels, and as he’s poking around, he says, ‘I really need a tool to help me measure this.’ So he goes and creates these tools, and we wind up filing all of these patents on them. He’s kind of fun to watch in that way.”
Fowler added that it is unusual for a university researcher to have a hand in the invention of such a broad array of technologies. “Most of the time they’re focused on a particular area, and he tends to be pretty widespread,” Fowler said.
Inventions for Reinvention
The cell volume cytometer is a microfluidics-based instrument for measuring changes in cell volume, which is a universal measure of cellular metabolism. According to Reichert and UB, cell volume measurements have not been used in cell-based screening applications because conventional methods such as microscopy are too complex and time-consuming.
Reichert and Sachs will continue to develop the cytometer with an eye toward applications such as detecting drug-cell interactions, bacterial sensitivity to antibiotics, cancer cell susceptibility to chemotherapeutics and, eventually, for diagnosing disease and selecting appropriate treatments.
Fowler said that the instrument is in the late stages of beta testing and may reach the market as early as 2008. UB and Reichert said in a statement that first-year sales of the product are expected to generate approximately $750,000 in revenues for the company, and sales after five years are expected to grow to $5 million.
“Using this grant we’ve been able to help out a local company that is trying to revitalize itself,” Fowler said. Reichert, a more than 100-year-old company, traditionally has marketed ophthalmic instruments, refractometers, and microscopy equipment and services, but has turned its attention to the drug-discovery tool market in recent years.
Reichert had gone through a period of ownership by various companies both inside and outside the US, most recently Leica Microsystems, which sold the company back to a Buffalo-area private equity firm in 2002. “When they finally got back to having local control of the company, they started looking around to try and revitalize their product line,” Fowler said.
“What I like best is here we have a local researcher and inventor, and we are helping out the local economy in a way that should benefit everybody,” Fowler added. “This is different from many ‘homerun’ deals, which a lot of times go to a large pharmaceutical company and may bring in lots of money for the university and create more research, but don’t really help the local companies.”
More Funding Options
Reichert was also one of 13 companies to receive funding in the most recent fiscal year, which ends June 31, from the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology as part of $1 million in annual support provided by NYSTAR.
According to Marnie Lavigne, director of business development for UB CAT, this program differs slightly from the TTIP program, but both are means to a similar end: the commercialization of university technologies and stimulation of the local economy through the creation of jobs in the life sciences sector.
“The CAT is an ongoing location, if you will, within the university, so we’re available 24-7 for organizations to come to for assistance; whereas the TTIP is more specifically a funding program,” Lavigne said. “So it’s a little bit different. Ours is more of a resource, but they are both grant-based dollars.
“Using this grant we’ve been able to help out a local company that is trying to revitalize itself.”
NYSTAR-funded CAT awards, like the TTIP grants, require a dollar-for-dollar match from the company partner.
The UB CAT is one of 15 CAT sites at universities across New York State that receive annual funding from NYSTAR, and one of three that focus specifically on life sciences. The CAT program was established in 1983 to generate economic impact in the state through university-industry applied research collaborations and technology transfer.
In Buffalo, the program has been especially important to the revitalization of the area economy through the life sciences industry.
“UB CAT’s support over the years has helped spur the birth of a life sciences industry in Buffalo Niagara,” Bruce Holm, senior vice provost and executive director of the UB CAT, said in a statement. “The linkages it creates between UB researchers and new and existing local companies are essential to leveraging UB’s research and development expertise to create new bioengineering and biomedical products and services for maximum impact on the region’s economy.”
The amount of Reichert’s award through UB CAT was not disclosed, although Lavigne said that most of the awards are of the five-figure variety, with a few reaching into six figures.
“Generally speaking, you’re funding technology development of that size,” Lavigne said. “We’re not talking about creation of a brand new technology — maybe validation of a technology, or even a commercial scale-up of testing. Sometimes it’s proof of concept, or a piece of a clinical trial.”
A small portion of the money provided to UB CAT by NYSTAR typically goes toward administration, and can include things like scientific equipment that will be used in the projects and paying the salaries of CAT employees.
“Each of the centers is attempting to leverage the investments that have been made in R&D and our universities on behalf of helping companies grow,” Lavigne said. “There may be scenarios where all that is happening is some consultation or assistance from a faculty member, which the companies maybe couldn’t afford on their own; or it may be facilities, faculty expertise, supplies, or materials – whatever is needed to help increase the revenues of that company or help move products or services to market more quickly.”
Other companies that have received funding from UB CAT in this past fiscal year are Androbiosys, Dirhodium Technologies, Empire Genomics, Harvest Precision Components, Kinex Pharmaceuticals, Medcotek, Medical Acoustics, Medical Conservation Devices, Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, NutriCyte, SmartPill, and Synergena. Each has partnered with a specific researcher or research lab at UB to further technology commercialization.
Lavigne said that the UB CAT program and the NYSTAR TTIP grants are two of “several vehicles for helping move technologies down the path to commercialization in our community. There certainly are many others, not the least of which is private sector investment.
“This is part of a continuum of resources,” she added. “Intellectual property protection is really important, but without pairing that with the ability to advance the technology further, it is too fragmented. Trying to pair up these kinds of programs with other pieces of that lab-to-market pathway is something we’re working really hard on, and over the past few years we’ve moved from just a handful of projects to 13 different types of initiatives across the whole spectrum of life sciences.”