UNM bustling with tech transfer activity

BY KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA / JOURNAL STAFF WRITER

Monday, August 26th, 2019 at 12:02am

Nearly a dozen new startup companies are working to take University of New Mexico inventions to market, including novel therapies for cancer and other diseases, a wearable patch to monitor a person’s alcohol levels, and an all-natural, environmentally friendly larvicide to kill mosquitos.

The Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech transfer office, licensed those university technologies to 11 newly formed businesses last year, according to the STC’s year-end report on commercialization efforts for fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30.

And dozens more companies are being formed by faculty members and students to take inventions and creative ideas to market on their own, assisted by STC and UNM’s Innovation Academy through programs that help to build a culture of entrepreneurialism on and off campus.

Most of the activity is centered on the Innovate ABQ high-tech research and development zone Downtown, where the university’s Lobo Rainforest Building offers a hub for entrepreneurial endeavors. The STC and tech-transfer teams from the state’s national laboratories are now housed there. New Mexico’s other research universities and many entrepreneurial organizations gather there as well to participate in events and programs.

That, in turn, offers a highly connected, supportive environment that’s attracting broad attention from businesspeople interested in homegrown New Mexico technologies.

“There’s a broad sense that the entrepreneurial ecosystem is reaching a new level,” said STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila. “It’s really becoming visible now. The Rainforest building has allowed STC to partner with many more organizations to have a greater impact on the community, and a lot more entrepreneurs, investors and others are calling me and others to get involved.”

About 950 students are enrolled at the Innovation Academy, which holds classes on the ground floor of the Rainforest Building and works with students seeking to market new products and services. Academy participants formed another 18 companies in FY 2019, bringing the total number launched since the academy’s creation in 2015 to 54, according to the latest program impact report, released last week.

“There’s a healthy mix of activities and support for student and faculty researchers interested in starting businesses,” Kuuttila said. “More students are also getting hired by startup companies.”

Last year, UNM received a $560,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to expand entrepreneurship programs to its branch campuses around the state.

“We’re providing entrepreneurial training at all the branches now,” Kuuttila said. “We’re seeing a lot of interest.”

In terms of traditional commercialization activities, STC’s impact continues to grow.

STC helped researchers file 102 patent applications last year, up from 93 in FY 2018. UNM faculty members disclosed 124 inventions, up from 107 in FY 2018, and UNM received 60 patents from the U.S. patent Office last year, up from 51 the year before.

Those efforts have created a robust pipeline of new technologies for investors to license from UNM. STC signed 51 license agreements with businesspeople last year, about the same as in FY 2018, when it awarded 52 licenses.

UNM placed 51st last year on the annual list of top 100 universities and research organizations worldwide that receive U.S. patents, published by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association. And among 18 “peer” institutions nationwide, UNM now ranks No. 1 in licensing agreements, No. 2 in startups, and eighth in faculty invention disclosures, Kuuttila said.

STC earned about $1.9 million in royalty and patent income last year. But adding in federal grants, payments from assisting other institutions with technology transfer, and rent from the Rainforest-based Lobo Venture Lab for startups, STC’s total revenue reached $3.4 million.

Of the 11 startups formed last year, seven remain headquartered in New Mexico. About half are seeking to market new health-related discoveries, including diagnostics and therapies for a variety of cancers and other illnesses, such as stroke, diabetes and infectious and cardiovascular diseases.

GPER G-1 Development, formed by the New Mexico Angels, is marketing a new molecule compound to simultaneously treat diabetes and obesity, NM Angels President John Chavez said.

“We’ve formed nine companies with UNM technology in recent years, and six of them are still in business,” Chavez said. “We see many opportunities at UNM.”

Other local entrepreneurs formed two other companies: Rio Grande Eco Corp. to kill mosquito larvae with all-natural ingredients, and DermaTec LLC to market a skin patch that detects alcohol through body sweat.

Serial entrepreneur Matt Biggs, who owns Red Dog Brewery and the Simms Fitness gym in Albuquerque, is CEO and co-founder of Rio Grande.

“The larvicide uses yeast and orange oil, which is exceptionally toxic to larvae,” Biggs said. “We hide the orange oil in the yeast, which they feed on. They don’t know they’re consuming the oil.”

The skin patch company, meanwhile, is using micro-needle technology developed at UNM to provide a simple, non-invasive test of fluids between cells that lie just below the skin. The company is focusing first on alcohol detection, but it could later include other biomarkers, said Chief Technology Officer Duncan McClure, a UNM graduate who formed the company with two local partners.

Andrea M. Garcia