By Ben Butkus
A group of entrepreneurial Virginia Tech alumni has formed a company to license and commercialize promising biotechnologies from their alma mater, BTW has learned.
The company, called Techulon, has about $400,000 of seed funding to work with, provided by its founders, and has already selected two technologies — in the general areas of therapeutics and biological research materials — to develop, Techulon president and CEO Frank Akers told BTW this week.
Akers declined to provide additional detail on the technologies because Techulon is currently negotiating licenses for the technologies with Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties, or VTip, the school's tech-transfer arm.
However, he said he expected that Techulon will secure licenses in the coming weeks and plans to publicly disclose the technologies at that time.
Akers said that Techulon got its start last year after a group of alumni got together to explore creative ways of giving money back to their school while simultaneously boosting regional economic development.
"This was a group of alumni who cared enough about Virginia Tech to put some money into a company," Akers said. "They formed the company, and then we spent the better part of a year searching for the right things to invest in."
All of the alumni involved also happen to be members of an advisory council to the dean of the Virginia Tech College of Science. Akers said the council meets twice a year to hear a report on the college and provide advice to the dean in certain areas.
"Typically we're advisors and donors to the university," Akers said. "But it's not the body itself [investing in Techulon]. These are various individuals who happen to be members of that roundtable that got together and started the company."
Akers, an advisory council member who was hired last May by Techulon, added that when he "first considered this job, I thought it sounded like an angel investing outfit or an incubator — license [technologies], spin them, dress them up, and send them off. But that's not our intent. We really want to establish and grow the business, and employ people."
He said that the model differs from typical university startup creation, in which an investigator has an invention disclosure or an idea, and then "goes out looking for money to fund it. We started with money and we're looking for ideas."
In addition, he said that all of the individuals involved in Techulon have entrepreneurial experience and thus can help VTip with a common university tech-transfer conundrum — finding skilled managers to help establish a company.
Akers said it is too early to tell exactly what Techulon's commercialization model will be — that is, whether the company will bring the technologies to market itself or spin off separate companies to commercialize each technology.
In any case, he said Techulon "intends to keep the faculty inventors involved. We think that's critical. We want them to be part of this whole thing in every way possible.
"We want to benefit Virginia Tech in every way we can," he added. "That includes in some cases sponsoring research. We're certainly going to license IP from Virginia Tech and hopefully derive revenues for them; and we're going to hire Virginia Tech students."
Akers has been the company's only employee to date, but he said that Techulon has hired an individual who just finished his PhD at the school and will bring him on as a chief scientist in September.
For its part, VTip has been working with Techulon to identify technologies and negotiate licenses with the company for them, but is not yet declaring the company's model a success.
"The unique aspect here is that it's a group of Virginia Tech alumni that got together, established relationships with faculty members, and will try to bring technologies to market," Mark Coburn, VTip's president, told BTW. "They have to prove to us that they have the capability and resources to do this."
Akers acknowledged that Techulon will need a lot more than $400,000 to move technologies to the marketplace, but was mum on the company's plans to seek other sources of funding, saying only that other alumni may become involved if they are interested.
"Alumni will be able to invest in Techulon, and if it's successful, which we think it will be, it will generate a lot more revenues and benefits for the university," he said. "It's a little bit of a different way of giving back and has the potential to accelerate and expand financial rewards."
Although Akers declined to reveal the specific technologies it is planning to commercialize, Jackie Reed, a licensing associate with VTip, told BTW that one of the technologies is a drug target involved in a variety of inflammatory diseases.
Coburn further steered BTW toward a related technology profiled last September in a Virginia Tech news article and discovered by researcher Liwu Li.
According to the article, Li's group has specifically uncovered how a cellular protein kinase named interleukin-1 receptor associated kinase 1, or IRAK-1, is critical for processing diverse inflammatory signals, and that its excessive activation is linked with a risk of atherosclerosis and diabetes.
And according to a news article last month in TechJournal South, one of the Techulon technologies can be classified as a biopolymer.
In any case, from a tech-transfer standpoint, both technologies are interesting for Virginia Tech, which, as an engineering school first and foremost, doesn't have a strong track record of commercializing life sciences technologies.
Reed, who manages the school's biotech portfolio, said that under a quarter of the invention disclosures received by VTip fall under the life science umbrella.
Still, she said that two startup companies, not counting Techulon, have been formed in the past year involving life science inventions at the school, and one is in the process of starting up right now.
In addition, Techulon may soon have many more life science technologies from which to choose, as Virginia Tech and the Carilion Clinic, which operates several hospitals in Virginia, plan to open the joint Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute in the coming year, with the first students enrolled sometime in 2010, Reed said.