Cyanobacteria-based biofuels. Software for comparative protein-sequence analysis. Plant-derived microbicides. Protocols for accelerated vaccine development.
These are just a few of the projects underway at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. Some have already shown substantial progress, yielding major federal grants and multiple journal publications, and drawing attention from private industry.
But which ideas that researchers are developing today will become tomorrow’s commercial products and firms? And how can Biodesign ensure that worthy technologies don’t languish for lack of funding? Those are the questions that Biodesign is creating the Impact Accelerator to answer.
At the instigation of Biodesign’s new executive director, Alan Nelson—who came to ASU after a successful career that bridged academia and industry—the ASU Foundation aims to raise $5 million to invest in the most promising technologies being developed at Biodesign. Relying on in-house expertise at ASU, those technologies will be nurtured until they can be spun off as stand-alone companies or are acquired by existing firms.
“We are going to do what a venture-capital firm does,” Dr. Nelson said in the Arizona Republic. “When you dig down, there are a lot of amazing inventions that are here. They are just a long way from commercialization.”
The plan that Biodesign has devised would have the Impact Accelerator work with five clients at a time. A volunteer board drawn from the local community will oversee assessment of candidate technologies and startup companies within Biodesign and pick those that receive funding, Dr. Nelson explained in the Republic. When one investment is discontinued, whether because the technology succeeds or fails, a new client will be selected, and proceeds from successful launches will be reinvested in the Impact Accelerator.
Biodesign’s new program is one of several that have been initiated in Arizona to address the gap in funding and commercialization expertise confronting would-be entrepreneurs in the biosciences.As noted by proponents of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, securing dollars for research and infrastructure is only one part of building a bioscience sector of international stature; also critical is building a stronger risk-capital continuum within Arizona.
Within that continuum are investment firms focused on the biosciences, such as Translational Accelerator LLC (TRAC), launched in 2008 to invest in early-stage bioscience firms in Arizona. Another option that emerged this year in Arizona is Catapult Bio, a nonprofit organization whose programs include issuing grants to help entrepreneurs move their discoveries into commercial development.The Impact Accelerator provides yet another avenue.
“It is what universities like Arizona State University and University of Arizona should be doing,” said Eric Tooker, one of TRAC’s managers, in the Republic. “Even in good times, it is difficult for startup companies to find funding.”
To date, technology-transfer activities at ASU have been managed by Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), which seeks to license ASU innovations to existing companies and investment firms. But as venture capitalists have grown more risk-averse in recent years, and with many companies holding on more tightly to their capital reserves, licensing opportunities have grown scarce.
Under the existing model, said Kimberly Ovitt, Biodesign’s director of communication and institutional advancement, in Biotech Transfer Week, “AzTE would shop it around and do the more traditional tech-transfer work—seeking patent protection, marketing, and licensing. This is a fairly long-term process.”
The new approach makes sense to Augie Cheng, AzTE’s managing director.
“Industry doesn’t want to take the risk because it’s such an early-stage technology,” Cheng said in the Republic. “This is an additional way to assist technology transfer.”
For more information:
“ASU’s Biodesign Institute Launches ‘Impact Accelerator’ to Incubate Nascent Life-Sci Ventures,” Biotech Transfer Week, 08/11/2009
“ASU plans to raise $5 mil to invest in new technologies,” Arizona Republic, 08/07/2009
“Biodesign launches impact initiative,” ASU news release, 08/06/2009