The Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has awarded Detroit-based Wayne State University $100,000 to support a commercialization center in the WSU School of Medicine’s Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, school officials said last week.
The center, which will be supported by matching funds from WSU, will seek to triage and eventually market promising inventions made at the CMMG by recruiting industry experts to identify promising technologies, providing business-development expertise and services, and educating students and staff in technology marketing.
The gift is one of 20 grants totaling $1.3 million awarded this month to Michigan universities by MIIE, an economic-development consortium that seeks to revive Michigan’s economy by strengthening university-industry ties, spinning out technology companies, and promoting an entrepreneurial culture in the state.
If the commercialization center is successful, the CMMG and WSU office of technology transfer may eventually expand its concept to the rest of the WSU School of Medicine, according to WSU officials.
“There are so many different types of technologies developed at universities, and even within one particular medical center, that it can be unwieldy to try and implement this across every department, and every nook and cranny,” Anne Di Sante, director of the WSU tech-transfer office, told BTW this week. “Working with this smaller discrete center gives us a chance to test-drive” the commercialization center.
The CMMG is a multidisciplinary center within the WSU School of Medicine with a translational medicine, or “bench-to-bedside,” mission, said Jeffrey Loeb, associate director of the CMMG and principal investigator on the MIIE commercialization center grant.
Loeb told BTW this week that because of his experience running a basic science laboratory at the WSU School of Medicine and starting up a pair of companies — targeted cancer therapeutics firm Glytag and an as-yet-unnamed epilepsy therapeutic company — he was chosen to improve the translational and commercialization components of the center.
“I have learned where the pitfalls are in trying to get an idea that you have in a laboratory out to the biotech sector,” said Loeb, who is also a practicing neurologist at the WSU School of Medicine. “That’s how the idea came about: from my own personal experiences and trials and tribulations.
“The question is: ‘What’s the best way to do it?’ Everybody has their own formula, and every tech-transfer office has their way of doing it,” he said. “We needed a way to streamline the process, a way to draw some extra interest and support, and a way to find people who are going to better match these technologies” with prospective industry partners.
The center, which has already started its activities, proposes a number of activities to increase the amount of commercialization activity at CMMG. These include assembling a team of experts into a technology-advisory board to screen potential new technologies; developing proof-of-concept and business-development plans; setting up or identifying seed funding opportunities for promising technologies; and providing a new commercialization education program to faculty, students, and staff of CMMG.
As an example, Loeb said that the center is going to build a website that will allow rapid screening of publications by CMMG scientists before they go to press for potentially patentable and commercializable ideas. From there the technology advisory board will help inventors decide which technologies have the most commercial potential.
”There are other resources and assets that universities have that can benefit the private sector that aren’t technology-based.”
“One of the problems at tech-transfer offices is that technology is so specialized,” Loeb said. “Folks that work at tech-transfer offices can’t be expert in anti-microbial agents, medical devices, and everything else. So the goal is to set up a general group to screen for [promising technologies], and then find whoever is best qualified to consult on them and have a fund to pay them.”
Di Sante agreed that one would have “a difficult time finding any university tech-transfer office that has specific technical experience in the entire breadth of technologies we manage. A lot of the consultants we will bring into the CMMG project are consultants that our office already has relationships with,” she said.
“We always like to have someone in industry give us feedback on any of the technologies, so formalizing this and developing formal relationships will be helpful,” Di Sante added.
Di Sante said that they expect future commercial opportunities from CMMG to align with the types of opportunities the center has seen thus far; which include products related to molecular diagnostics; therapeutics; drug-discovery screening assays; and instrumentation.
The center has a current budget of about $200,000, as it also received funding from the WSU office of the vice president of research, tech-transfer office, and will provide its own money to match the MIIE grant money.
The WSU CMMG grant is one of 20 totaling $1.3 million awarded this month to universities in the state through MIIE, a recently established consortium of 15 state universities that seeks to leverage philanthropic resources to strengthen university-industry ties, spin out technology companies, and “promote a culture of entrepreneurial risk-taking,” MIIE said.
The consortium proposes that the MIIE program can yield as many as 200 startup companies in the state over the next decade, and plans to raise and distribute $75 million over the next seven years, primarily through donations from some of the more than 2,200 foundations located in the state.
The initial $1.3 million in awards came from a $2 million planning grant awarded to the MIIE last fall by the CS Mott Foundation.
WSU’s CMMG commercialization center award was one of five made specifically through the MIIE “technology-commercialization fund,” which aims to provide gap funding to enhance technology commercialization at state universities.
Two other projects receiving tech-commercialization awards have a distinct life-science slant: a $115,000 award to Grand Valley State University researchers to help develop new antimicrobial agents; and a $10,000 grant to University of Michigan scientists developing rapid CD4 testing for HIV patients.
The remaining 15 awards were made through either an “industry and economic engagement fund” or a “talent retention and entrepreneurship education fund,” and are designed to “more closely engage the private sector specifically with various university interests that aren’t necessarily patent-based,” James Baker, co-chair of the MIIE management committee, told BTW this week.
Examples of the types of activities supported by these grant programs include providing research and expertise to emerging technology companies in the form of graduate or undergraduate students at state universities and business schools; partnering Michigan companies and universities to meet manufacturing needs; or providing entrepreneurial education to university faculty and students.
“There are other resources and assets that universities have that can benefit the private sector that aren’t technology-based,” said Baker, who is also director of technology and economic development at Michigan Technological University.
“How do we better and more closely engage universities and the private sector to provide those resources to the private sector?” Baker asked. “At the same time, how do we advance the … conventional understanding of the innovation economy and of entrepreneurship?”
None of the awards made under these two categories is particularly life-sciences oriented, but Baker said that doesn’t mean that life sciences won’t play a role in the new center.
“There is no explicit focus on one area,” Baker said. “It’s where the expertise and the market opportunities lie. That may generate some kind of outcome bias in terms of life science because the upsides tend to be higher. Otherwise, there is no explicit proportionate distribution between [industry] sectors.”
About two-thirds of the total MIIE funding is expected to go toward the tech-commercialization fund, while the remaining one-third will be awarded through the “industry and economic engagement” or “talent retention and entrepreneurship education” funds.
Although Baker is not directly involved with the fundraising effort, he said that his regular meetings with those who are seem to indicate that things are progressing. “I give it a reasonable chance of success,” Baker said.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but there seems to be a lot of interest, and a lot of enthusiasm,” he added. “We got 39 proposals from 15 institutions for the pilot grants, so clearly there is some interest and demand for this type of program. Now we can go back to the funders and say, ‘There isn’t just a hope that something is here. It’s real.’”