Beacon Sciences, a University of Texas at Austin spin-out company, said last week that it has obtained an exclusive license from UT-Austin for a chemiluminescent-based molecular recognition technology that may have application in a wide variety of applications, including point-of-care diagnostic assays for diabetes, cardiac disorders, brain injury, and sepsis.
Beacon was able to in-license the technology with an undisclosed amount of financial backing from Emergent Technologies, a life sciences venture firm that forms specialized funds for investing in early-stage companies based on institutional and university-based technologies.
Specifically, Beacon is a portfolio company of Emergent Technologies Fund IV, which Emergent established to invest in companies commercializing research developed or owned by the entire University of Texas system.
Emergent’s financial support enables early-stage firms to develop new technologies while it seeks larger partners who may be interested in acquiring the technologies or the start-ups themselves once they are closer to commercialization.
According to Neil Iscoe, director of UT-Austin’s Office of Technology Commercialization, this strategy represents a relatively new model for commercializing university-bred technologies.
“We think this is a good model — the basic idea of taking something that is very early stage and getting it to a company that is going to start moving it along very quickly and trying to form partnerships,” Iscoe told BTW. “Emergent is practicing this with a particular structure, but it’s the model that’s unique, and other companies can practice it.”
Iscoe said that the traditional tech-transfer model of seeking commercial partners in the form of big pharma or biotech companies has met with difficulty in recent years because many of those companies are unwilling to risk licensing such early-stage technologies.
“Big pharma has pulled further and further back, and each year their threshold for licensing is getting higher,” Iscoe said. “They let the little companies figure out what’s going to work first, and then they buy them. A lot of things don’t get developed that could get developed because the gap is too big.
“If this were a fully developed technology for licensing, we’d just license it,” he added. “But it’s not.”
The technology licensed by Beacon Sciences was developed in the laboratory of UT-Austin professor of chemistry Eric Anslyn, who now serves as chief scientific officer for the start-up.
Anslyn spent much of his career developing “lock-and-key” synthetic receptors based on supramolecular recognition chemistry for binding analytes such as biomarkers, including those too small to be detected with current antibody-based receptors.
Brian Windsor and Damon Borich, co-managing directors of Emergent Technologies Fund IV and former UT-Austin employees, said they were aware of Anslyn’s molecular recognition work early on. When Windsor and Birch moved to Emergent Technologies and began seeking companies for Fund IV, Anslyn had added a novel chemiluminescent detection aspect to the technology, and “his name moved right to the top of the list,” Windsor said.
Borich said that Emergent’s original interest in the technology pertained to a sensor Anslyn developed for heparin, an important analyte involved in blood thinning.
As Emergent began to investigate the technology further, however, and looked at the portfolio of sensors Anslyn had constructed for other analytes, “it really transformed this from an idea of pursuing only heparin and looking at it from a platform approach,” Borich said. “We realized that Eric’s capabilities allow him to create receptors for a wide array of small molecules.”
In addition, Anslyn was able to develop an extremely sensitive chemiluminescence detection method that differs from previous methods.
“Most chemiluminescent assays in the past have been just a label that follows an entity and follows its concentration,” Anslyn told BTW. “We turn the glow on or off, so to speak.”
Beacon and Emergent declined to disclose the specific patents the company licensed from UT-Austin, but Windsor and Borich said that Beacon is eyeing multiple application areas. The companies and UT-Austin also declined to disclose specific financial terms, although UT-Austin’s Iscoe said that Anslyn and the university will split any incoming revenues 50-50 as governed by the UT Board of Regents’ rules.
“Big pharma has pulled further and further back, and each year their threshold for licensing is getting higher.”
“There are quite a few different areas we can go into, and one of the unique aspects of Emergent and Beacon is that unlike a traditional VC-based company, where the end goal is to decide on and make a final product, the Emergent model is finding corporate partners that have particular needs in – as it pertains to Beacon – diagnostics and assays, for example,” Borich said.
“One of the things we have going for us is that we have corporate partners coming to us that have different classes of analytes that previously they have only been able to [measure] via antibodies, antigens, or enzymes,” Borich added. “But with [Beacon’s] technology, and especially since we really excel at small molecules, we have a lot of opportunities coming to us.”
Examples of potential application areas include point-of-care diagnostic assays for cardiac, brain injury, diabetes, and sepsis biomarkers; as well as assays for bacterial contamination in the food and beverage industry and even tests for bioterrorism agents.
Anslyn said that his research group at UT-Austin has historically been able to successfully make and patent individual receptors, “so we know we can get IP coverage for each and every different kind of receptor we come up with. But [we have] right now a patent under review that is very broad based for the chemiluminescence concept itself.”
Emergent Technologies’ model of exploring multiple markets for the technology is, in the long run, beneficial to technology commercialization efforts at UT-Austin, Iscoe said, even though Anslyn’s invention is extremely early stage.
“If somebody had shown up and said, ‘I’m an entrepreneur, I can do this, raise money, put together a company, and do an IPO,’ we could have done that with this technology,” Iscoe said. “In the Emergent case, they’re going to put smaller amounts of money into it and try as quickly as they can to find multiple partners. It’s really multiple exits.”
Iscoe also said that the model is akin to “getting a lot of base hits and forgetting about the homeruns. We’re pretty certain we’re going to get these base hits, and that makes things less risky.
“In this model, our goal overall is to get the research out to the public in terms of products and services,” he added. “By doing more transactions like this, we can do more deals overall. In the end, nobody knows which ones exactly will work.”