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UMBC, Johns Hopkins to Use $600K NSF Grant to Create Life-Sci Startups Around NIH Techs

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By Ben Butkus

This article was originally published on Aug. 18.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Johns Hopkins University are partnering under a three-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation grant to train postdocs to create startup companies based on technologies culled primarily from the National Institutes of Health.

The program, which aims to create 10 to 12 startups in Maryland, builds upon the success of a previous NSF-funded initiative led by UMBC that trains mid-career women entrepreneurs to create tech-based startup companies in the state.

That initiative, for which the NSF awarded UMBC and its partners $700,000 over five years, resulted in the creation of some two dozen companies from various Maryland research institutions.

However, funding for that initiative ended earlier this year, and the same UMBC team, led by principal investigator Gregory Simmons, UMBC's vice president for institutional advancement, decided to repurpose the program to include postdocs of both genders who would focus on life-science technologies.

"We'll recruit postdocs from throughout the state, but these will primarily be postdocs at NIH," Simmons told BTW this week. According to the research grant's abstract, some 10 percent of all postdocs in the US work in Maryland. "These highly trained scientists are a valuable, yet untapped, resource for economic development in the region," the grant states.

"We hope we can start companies that will benefit the state,” said Simmons. “We want to marry high-potential technologies with people that can help get these companies off the ground and benefit the region."

Both programs use a model the organizers dubbed "Achieving the Commercialization of Technology in Ventures through Applied Training for Entrepreneurs," or ACTIVATE.

Funded through the NSF's Partnerships for Innovation program, Activate matches postdocs with individuals from the business community with entrepreneurial experience. These individuals will then undergo a year-long, applied training program customized to address the specific commercialization needs of the postdocs and the technology being considered.

"We're taking people who have demonstrated the ability to be entrepreneurs in the past and giving them rigorous training in entrepreneurship," Simmons said.

The Activate NIH program will specifically attempt to build companies around technologies that have been identified and screened by the NIH Office of Technology Transfer. The investigators are working with Rockville, Md.-based biotech and pharma consulting company Human Workflows to screen the technologies.

"We're really trying to leverage inventions that aren't being commercialized," Simmons said. "Maybe we'll bundle some technologies; or maybe these will be technologies that are ripe for commercialization now but weren't three years ago."

Steve Ferguson, deputy director for licensing and entrepreneurship in the NIH OTT, told BTW that the postdoc-entrepreneur teams will "select a technology from the NIH's portfolio" just as any entrepreneur or startup company normally would.

"The whole purpose of our office is to find companies to help commercialize our discoveries, so we're looking at this as another way to get more looks at our portfolio and get more technologies out in the marketplace," Ferguson added.

Stephen Auvil, assistant vice president for research at UMBI and co-PI on the grant, told BTW that there were no constraints on the type of technologies chosen "other than they should be technologies that are appropriate for startup companies."

Most, but not all, of the technologies will come from NIH, and "in many cases, the technology will be decided by what the postdoc is working on,” he added. “In other cases we might have postdocs that want to participate in starting a company and we will match them with a technology from a pool of available technologies."

As part of the program, Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School will help "host" many of the entrepreneurial activities that will be core to the Activate program, Auvil said. Another benefit of JHU's participation is that the Carey Business School may eventually be able to incorporate the Activate model in its regular educational programs, and evolve and modify the program so it could be offered by other business schools around the country.

Additional partners on Activate NIH include Montgomery County Community College; George Mason University; Rockville Economic Development; and the Incubator Network of Montgomery County.

The ultimate goal of Activate NIH is to train 45 postdocs and 45 businesspeople to commercialize the technologies and to start 10 to 12 companies over the three-year term of the grant, according to the investigators.

The original Activate program for women entrepreneurs, which launched in 2004, had set a goal of creating six to nine women-run companies during the program's first three years. The program easily exceeded that goal and, when its NSF funding ended early this year, the program had created some two dozen companies, Simmons said.

"We have had tremendous success with this model," he said. "We far exceeded our expectations."

Even though the NSF grant for the Activate for Women program has expired, the program is still operating with a mix of public and private funding, as well as with tuition fees from students interested in participating, Simmons said.

He also said that several other institutions and state economic development engines around the US have inquired about the general Activate model, and may be interested in licensing it, which could further bring revenue to support both programs.

"We think this can be a really helpful program at a time when so many [postdocs] are trying to figure out what their next step is going to be," Simmons said.