Idea Incubator


By Kevin Robinson-Avila / Journal Staff Writer

Published: Monday, December 31st, 2012 at 12:05am
Updated: Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013 at 10:27am

UNM associate professor Jason T. McConville tests an oral strip he developed. (PAT VASQUEZ-CUNNINGHAM/JOURNAL)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Four new University of New Mexico technologies may be headed for a novel assembly line.

Not a product assembly line, but a company-forming incubator where the New Mexico Angels will build the initial foundations to create new businesses that take UNM technologies to market.

“We’re in the process of forming the ‘New Mexico Startup Factory LLC,'” said Angels President John Chavez. “It’s a holding company where we’ll take options to license new technologies from UNM. We’ll spend time on developing the intellectual property and creating business and commercialization plans, and then we’ll make decisions about spinning out new companies to take the technologies to market.”

The Startup Factory has already taken options to license two new UNM inventions: Ultra-fast optical receivers made from off-the-shelf components that substantially reduce costs, and a method to encapsulate fungus, bacteria and other natural organisms that kill agricultural pests, thus improving ability to use those organisms as biopesticides.

Two other technologies are also marching toward the Angel assembly line: A dissolvable oral strip that alleviates food burns and lesions in the mouth, and a new method to increase analysis rates in flow “cytometers,” or cell meters, which are used to screen tissue samples for medical diagnostics.

Jason T. McConville, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the UNM College of Pharmacy, has developed an oral strip to alleviate food burns and lesions.

Unveiled at showcase

The Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s technology transfer office, showcased all four technologies at a luncheon with the Angels on Dec. 14. It was the third such STC-Angels event in three years, reflecting a unique and growing partnership between local Angel investors and UNM commercialization specialists to move inventions from lab to market.

The N.M. Angels, which unites about 70 individuals who pool their resources to invest in startups, formed three companies to market UNM technologies since 2010, when the STC began organizing the annual luncheon events.”We launched one company after the first event (in 2010) and two more came out of the event the following year,” Chavez said. “I believe at least two more companies will come out of the showcase this year.”

The partnership is mutually advantageous. For the Angels, it allows investors to get involved in the earliest stages of new technology startups to help inventors build business strategies for long-term success, while cementing the Angels’ equity stake in the company before larger, institutional investors step in, Chavez said.

For UNM, it helps attract early-stage capital, plus expert guidance needed to prepare inventors and their technologies for market.

“All the New Mexico Angels are experienced businesspeople who once they get interested in a project provide mentoring, business direction, strategy and fundraising expertise, all of which are critical to early-stage ventures,” said STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila. “Academics don’t have those skills, and most faculty are more interested in continuing their research. They’re happy to play a role in technology transfer, but they don’t want to stop teaching and working with students.”

UNM professor Jason T. McConville prepares an oral strip.

Startup funding

About half of all startups launched with UNM technologies in recent years began with Angel funding, either through pooled Angel capital, or through individual Angel investors, Kuuttila said.

“Apart from bringing critical startup capital, this helps keep new companies in New Mexico, because the Angels want startups to remain here where they can keep an eye on their investments,” Kuuttila said.

Chavez said the Angels are interested in the technologies showcased this year because they all have practical, promising market applications, and they only need a small amount of capital to begin moving forward.

One of them, a dissolvable oral strip made to alleviate food burns, has already drawn national attention, thanks to “Saturday Night Live,” which poked fun at university researchers inventing a medical product to ease the sting of hot pizza.

But UNM pharmaceutics professor Jason T. McConville, who invented the oral strip, said the “Ouch Mouth” can do much more than that. Apart from relieving oral burns, lesions and canker sores, it could be used before and after dental procedures, and it could provide targeted drug delivery for a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

‘The big fish’

“Food burns are really small potatoes. That’s just one application,” McConville said. “The big fish is systemic delivery of drugs to the body.”

The strips are made from a plant-derived cellulose commonly used in drug tablets. The cellulose swells and becomes sticky on contact with water, generating a gel layer that interacts with mucus membranes in the mouth. The stronger the gel layer, the slower the strip will dissolve, gradually releasing drugs contained in it, McConville said.

That means pharmacists can customize the strips to release medications over time. And unlike tablets that lose potency as they pass through the digestive system, the strips would provide more direct delivery to targeted illnesses in the body.

Another technology, microencapsulation of biopesticides, has already received $1 million in development grants since 2011 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Naturally occurring fungi and bacteria are often used against insects such as locusts, but their effectiveness is generally limited because they rapidly degrade under heat and ultraviolet light. By encapsulating the organisms in UV resistant gels, they could last longer and be more effective, providing an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical pesticides, said Adam Forshaw, one of two UNM researchers who developed the encapsulation process.

UNM researchers developed this chip with multiple channels that can each contain three to four individual fluid streams to force through a cytometer for analysis. (courtesy of UNM Center for Biomedical engineering)

Cytometer tech

Meanwhile, UNM’s new cytometer technology, is expected to draw significant attention in the medical diagnostics and drug development industries.

This is UNM’s second major breakthrough in flow-through cytometry, which uses fluids to rapidly push thousands, if not millions, of compounds through cell meters for analysis. A previous UNM invention that cranks up the speed at which tissue samples are fed through cytometers is being marketed by IntelliCyt Corp., an Albuquerque startup with venture backing.

Now, two UNM scientists have developed a way to use sound waves to split single fluid channels that carry tissue samples through cytometers into multiple channels that simultaneously push more compounds through the machines. The inventors say their technology will increase the number of tissue-carrying fluid channels from one to 300, allowing cytometers to analyze cells at rates 20 times faster than today’s machines, but without raising costs.

Start-Up FactoryDorian Rader