Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the University of Arizona’s College of Science has long been a powerhouse in research and is now its leading producer of intellectual property through a working relationship with Tech Launch Arizona.
Prior to the UA’s Never Settle academic and strategic plan, the College of Science disclosed about two dozen inventions per year. Then, in 2012, UA President Ann Weaver Hart brought Vice President David Allen aboard to lead TLA and build a culture around innovation and commercialization. The unit was tasked with bringing the inventions emanating from University research to market, creating social and economic impact.
The 45 faculty members in chemistry and biochemistry, or CBC, are now producing about 50 invention disclosures — about one-fourth of all disclosures TLA receives — and one startup company per year. Over half of those disclosures become provisional patents. And over half of those provisionals are converted to full patent applications.
In short, the research and inventions of CBC faculty are making their way into the world, which is how tech transfer is supposed to work.
"In a department this big, there are always people who say that they want an idea to go to the next level," says Roger Miesfeld, head of CBC. "It’s the mindset of the entrepreneurial faculty member that moves things toward commercialization."
CBC historically has been a catalyst for impact by bringing such research to market. Companies such Selectide (predecessor to Sanofi) and GlycoSurf are prime examples of startups that emerged from entrepreneurial faculty.
TLA helps faculty protect inventions through the patent process and turn them into intellectual property. That IP is then licensed to existing companies or startups, and the UA receives royalties in exchange for use of the knowledge.
"TLA has streamlined the whole process," Miesfeld says, "and now that natural entrepreneurial spirit of chemists and biochemists can be manifested at the University of Arizona."
At the urging of Paul Eynott, TLA’s licensing manager embedded in the College of Science, Miesfeld decided to try the process himself.
"We had a compound that, when we put it into female mosquitoes, it made the blood go into her crop (where nectar is usually stored) instead of her stomach and she died," Miesfeld says. "We said, 'That’s a really weird drug and it does something we’ve never seen before.' So we went to Eynott and asked if he could do something with it."
Today, two years on, Eynott has helped to patent the molecule, and the UA is in negotiations with a multinational chemical company to license the IP.
Among the other CBC faculty success stories are:
Jon Njardarson has literally put a new learning tool in the pockets of organic chemistry students around the world. In collaboration with the Office of Instructional Assessment, Njardarson developed Chemistry by Design, an elegant mobile app that helps in learning organic chemistry. He is working with TLA to commercialize the app.
"There’s nothing more satisfying to a scientist than sketching out an idea and seeing it realized," Njardarson says.
Katrina Miranda studies a class of molecules called nitrogen oxides, focusing on the treatment of breast cancer. The disease has touched a number of people in her life.
When it comes to drug development, academic research can only go so far, she says. For a drug to go out for medical use, it must be patented and then licensed to a company that can afford to shepherd it through clinical trials. Miranda is working with TLA on a patent and starting a company to make her invention more attractive to a pharmaceutical firm.
"TLA has helped me figure out what I can do," she says. "I’m certainly not a business person. I’m a chemist. I’m a scientist. So they’ve been helping me go through that process and think about the business side."
Michael Heien is delving into the role of neurochemistry in depression, learning, heart disease and memory. Through sensors developed in his lab, he and his graduate students are learning about brain chemicals involved in modulating disease states in collaboration with psychologists and pharmacologists.
"We have probes (fibers that can be inserted into brain tissue) that we’ve modified that makes them resistant to biofouling," Heien says. "We’ve come up with some coatings to make these sensors really phenomenal in their ability."
Heien and TLA have filed a patent for the invention, whose use extends to aircraft manufacturers.
"You can coat carbon fibers and get better adhesion to the polymers used in building aircraft parts," Heien says. "That’s not something we would normally think of in our research."
John Jewett set up his lab to understand the dengue virus through the use of techniques in chemical biology. His research focused on looking for small molecules to understand how the virus interacts.
In researching the pure chemistry of the virus, Jewett and his team were looking at chemicals called triazabutadienes and phenols. On their own in the air, these molecules don’t bond together, but Jewett found they get sticky in water.
"Even in our first conversation where I brought this idea up to Paul from a chemical perspective, he started asking things like, 'What could you use this for? Could it be used for this or that or something else?'" Jewett recalls.
Patents have been filed for the technology for applications such as fixing cracks in deep water oil pipelines.