Gail Bishop is doing all she can to avoid “the valley of death.” A fate to which Bishop — a professor of microbiology and internal medicine at the University of Iowa — said she has seen too many academics fall prey.
Bishop and her business partner and fellow UI scientist Tony Vanden Bush have created a medical technology they feel can be commercialized. (See "Lock and key" sidebar.)
However, the pair is faced with the quintessential problem of translating an idea from the lab into a business venture.
“In science, they call it the valley of death,” Bishop said. “You get to this point where it sounds really, really promising, and over there is the product in the box, and who wants to get you across that gap? A company wants something that is as close to a sure thing as it can possibly be.”
To entice potential investors, Bishop and Vanden Bush must complete further tests and proof of concept work, and the University of Iowa Research Foundation has identified their work and other academic undertakings as worthwhile.
As a result, the foundation created the 2012 ICE Commercialization Gap Fund — a $1 million fund for FY 2012 that will help academics bankroll the critical research to cross “the valley,” and potentially lead to the creation of companies or licensing of technologies for the UI.
THE FOUNDATION AND THE FUND
The foundation’s focuses is to aid in the production and commercialization of inventions, and it has more than 100 technologies available for licensing.
However, Zev Sunleaf, the foundation’s executive director, said a change in external business practices has forced the foundation to shift focus.
“It used to be that (an invention) was disclosed to us, we would file patents on it and start contacting companies to license it,” he said. “Companies were taking those technologies at an earlier point and doing more development internally.
"But they are becoming a little bit more risk averse.”
This shift means more internal testing of products is required before outside investors are willing to gamble their funds.
Before this year, the foundation had been able to finance the proof of concept research through the state’s Grow Iowa Values Fund (GIVF). Last year, the foundation doled out $525 thousand in grants, with each grant ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.
But this year, foundation officials were not sure if they would receive funding from the state, so they developed the gap fund.
The foundation subsequently has received $525,000 in funding for proof-of-concept research from the Regents Innovation Fund, which has allowed them to reduce the amount of internal funds used to $475,000, to reach the million-dollar gap fund promise.
“There are a lot more people. We also are wanting to increase the size of the projects we can support,” Sunleaf said.
“We are now saying $75,000 grants are not a problem, and we can even do it multiple times a year. With the Grow Iowa fund, we were very tied to the state’s calendar.”
And the money that came through the GIVF was not accompanied by any commercial business advice.
“The GIVF fund helped to get them commercialized, but there was no expertise to help them start their companies,” said Paul Dymerski, an associate director for the foundation who was hired this past November. “That is what I came on for, to help fill the valley of death.”
The foundation has launched eight new companies, in various stages and to different degrees, since Dymerski started. But he stressed the importance for the foundation to consistently identify and capitalize on business opportunities.
“Doing it on a consistent basis is difficult,” he said. “We are trying to build a culture and community in Eastern Iowa to bring private investors, state and federal funding together.”
WHY GET INVOLVED?
Josh Cramer thinks the economic landscape of Iowa has changed from big-box to startup.
“I have been in Iowa City for almost 10 years,” said the CEO of Cramer Dev, which focuses on developing software and mobile applications for companies. “I would say in the last two years, the environment and culture for startups has really ripened.”
But academics blazing a business trail are often in need of assistance.
“Young startups need investors, they also need mentors,” Cramer said. “Coming out of an academic research environment, they are going to have to run their business in the business community.”
This is why Cramer has partnered with Dymerski to build a network of business mentors for some of the projects backed by the gap fund.
And while time is money, Cramer said he thinks that will not inhibit business people from getting involved.
“It has been said before, it takes a village to raise a startup,” he said. “I think if you believe building new companies is going to be good for your economy and good for people, then you should help a startup.
"If you have been successful as a CEO or in a business, then it is a good way to give back to your community.”
Dymerski and Cramer both added there is potential for a mentorship to parlay into an economic partnership with these fledgling businesses.
And Bishop said she sees the inclusion of mentorship and business advice as an improvement on the foundation’s funding process.
“I think it is a more hands on way of funding things than GIVF, which was, ‘Here is the money, good luck,’” said Bishop. “With the gap funding, we are seeing people with business expertise being brought into the picture who are giving us advice, and it is invaluable because we do not know what we are doing when it comes to business.”
The goal for each venture receiving funding from the foundation is to reach the marketplace, either through licensing the technology or establishing a new company. And while these two paths are different, Dymerski said they could both lead to positive gains for Iowans.
“As we develop the discovery into the commercialization process, we always look for licensing opportunities because licensing will being revenues to the university sooner,” he said. “But starting a venture brings longer term returns to the community with development and employment opportunities.”
INVENTOR 1: CREATING A LOOP
It does not take a cardiologist to know the heart is an important organ. So when it starts acting up, there is cause for concern.
Atrial fibrillation is one of the most common cardiac arrhythmia, and it can lead to symptoms that include heart palpitations and shortness of breath. While it is not a fatal condition, the symptoms can cause patients to seek treatment called ablation — which is neutralizes the source of the arrhythmia through cauterization.
The most common procedures — of which 35 thousand are performed in the United States each year — are either an invasive surgery in which the doctor opens the patient’s chest and creates scars to isolate the area that is causing the negative impulses, or an extensive four- to six-hour procedure is performed from inside the patient’s heart.
Steven Mickelsen, a cardiology fellow at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, thinks he has found a better way.
Mickelsen held a pair of cylindrical metal handles from which pliable plastic tubes protruded and snaked through the air.
“About a year ago, I came up with a way to figure out how to make a hybrid new procedure,” he said of his catheter system. The procedure would “try to do the ablation on the outside of the heart, rather than on the inside.”
Mickelsen said it is currently technically difficult to do this due to anatomical obstructions. But his catheters are designed to overcome some of the problems by navigating without causing trauma.
The two catheters can be moved independently and connected, creating a loop.
“Once we have (the connection) around the backside of the left atria, then we can deliver a wire,” he said. “Once you have the wire there, you can put all kinds of tools there.”
The final step would be to feed a different catheter, which Mickelsen has coined “the ring of fire,” along the wire and quickly deliver ablation to the part of the heart causing the atrial fibrillation.
Last year, Mickelsen successfully built and tested prototypes of his catheters using a $50,000 GIVF grant from the foundation.
As Mickelsen is not faculty, he cannot be funded directly by the foundation. But his mentor James Martins of the UI’s department of cardiology has taken an interest in the project and has been a part of the aid process.
Mickelsen also has launched a company, called Iowa Approach, and he will receive money from the gap fund this year to push research to a place that can attract investors. He hopes the funding will be about $70,000.
“We have envisioned the procedure, have a clear idea of how we think it can be done and built some tools and are in the process of testing,” he said, adding that it will be years of testing and FDA approval before the procedure can be implemented.
“It is four years. It's high risk, high reward. If it works, it is going to be a big deal. If it doesn’t work, then it is just another thing that didn’t work.”
INVENTOR 2: LOCK AND KEY
Imagine a world without diseases.
While that may be a bit far reaching, a pair of UI scientists believe they have discovered a way to enhance vaccinations that could lead to tremendous advancements in disease-prevention technology.
Gail Bishop, a professor of microbiology and internal medicine, and Tony Vanden Bush, a research scientist for the department of microbiology, have been working on a way to universalize immune complex vaccine production.
“The technology itself isn’t a vaccine, it is a technology that allows vaccines to work better ... to improve the immune response towards vaccines that are either currently developed, or help develop new ones,” Vanden Bush said.
While the pair admitted the science behind their invention is complex, even a bit thick for some of their colleagues, they describe the technology using a lock-and-key analogy.
The human body naturally produces antibodies (the key) whenever a virus (the lock) is identified within the body. When they connect, an immune complex is created, which is exceedingly successful at stimulating further immune response within the body.
No vaccines currently are made up of immune complexes because each lock-and-key pair is unique and therefore difficult to manufacture.
But they have developed a way to universalize the creation of immune complex vaccines.
“We found a way to universalize the antibody to recognize any vaccine particle,” Vanden Bush said. “We can make an antibody in the lab that will bind to the vaccine in the syringe, so the immune complex is already formed in the syringe, and then we inject that.”
The initial science behind this venture was funded through a $574,000 stimulus fund grant in 2009. Since then, the pair have received GIVF funding twice, formed a business called Memcine Pharmaceuticals Inc. and are focused on commercialization.
Last month they received more than $50 thousand in gap funding, which the pair hopes will cover more laboratory testing and provide data that will entice outside investors.
And while their research is focused on the influenza vaccine — a vaccine market with $4.5 billion in revenue for 2011, according to the publication Vaccine Production, Vanden Bush said — they are hopeful their technology can reach beyond that.“The potential is very great,” Vanden Bush said. “And that is just human vaccines, there could be agricultural usage as well.”