Ben Franklin


Southwestern PA: Technology Transfer from University to Commercialization

The Pittsburgh area is home to renowned universities and colleges full of innovative new ideas and solutions. Technology transfer offices within these institutions work with faculty researchers and students to advance these ideas into early-stage companies. However, many of these potential businesses lack the funds and business leadership to help them spin out successfully and achieve critical business development milestones.

Though nearly $1 billion of federal research money flows into the region’s top universities for scientific discovery, there is almost no funding available for researchers to develop the business case for their technology. Innovation Works, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of southwestern PA (BFTP/IW), is acutely aware of this issue. BFTP/IW provides funding and business assistance to help spin these ideas out of the university into a working company and toward commercialization.

University Innovation Grant

Innovation Work’s University Innovation Grant (UIG) program bridges the gap between funding for research and the development of a commercial entity to bring a university technology to market. These grants, up to $25,000 each, help with prototype development, market research, technology validation, intellectual property evaluation and more. The grants bridge the gap between research dollars and seed investment by funding activities that validate commercialization potential. BFTP/IW has provided more than a million dollars in UIGs since the program’s inception.

Ben Franklin’s University Innovation Grant program fills a critical need for inventors trying to commercialize their technology.

Cohera Medical is one company that started out by receiving the University Innovation Grant for market research and is now developing solutions for surgical wound closure. Cohera Medical’s flagship product, TissuGlu, is an easy-to-use surgical glue that assists in the deep would closure process. Based on a unique chemical design, TissuGlu is a synthetic, biodegradable product and requires no preparation, unlike available alternatives. It can be formulated for use in a variety of surgical applications including plastic surgery, general and orthopedic surgery.

“By providing discretionary funds for business plan development, market reports and expertise, BFTP/IW’s UIG program fills a critical need for inventors trying to commercialize their technology,” said Dottie Clower, PhD, VP of Business Development and Operations for Cohera Medical, Inc. “This is exactly the kind of seed funding that is necessary to get promising technologies out of the laboratory and on their way to commercialization.”

Following Cohera’s award of the UIG grant, the company’s progress and potential were so promising that BFTP/IW made a followup investment of $100,000 in the company. Today Cohera is developing other adaptations of its unique chemical formula including an adhesive for securing soft tissues and implantable devices such as hernia mesh, and a small bone adhesive.

The University Innovation Grant program works particularly well for life sciences companies, because they often need assistance figuring out the most appropriate first market for their product.

Executive in Residence

With more than 20 years experience in leading and managing medical device companies, Executive in Residence Larry Miller is able to provide truly personalized assistance to the entrepreneurial life sciences community. Miller works with the management teams of early-stage life science and medical device startups in the BFTP/IW portfolio. Miller advises on critical business issues such as intellectual property creation and protection, product development, marketing, sales, fundraising, management recruitment and growth planning. Essentially, he brings rigor and structure to the company by helping identify and reach milestones for commercialization and business development.

“We work to help promising technology move out of the university and into the next stage of development,” said Miller. “The University Innovation Grant program works particularly well for life sciences companies, because they often need assistance figuring out the most appropriate first market for their product. Frequently, the result of a UIG is a company ready for further BFTP/IW investment. Life sciences companies make up about one-third of our portfolio.”

Innovation Works has been a good partner. Their investment provides credibility with other investors, and they provide valuable mentoring and networking for their portfolio companies.
—Alan West, president & CEO, Carmell Therapeutics

Spinning Out of Universities

Another life sciences portfolio company launched from a UIG is Carmell Therapeutics, which began in Carnegie Mellon University and Allegheny General Hospital. Founded in 2007, Carmell is manufacturing biologically active plastics from blood plasma for treating injuries to bone and connective tissue. With a focus on sports medicine, Carmell is developing solutions to repair tendon and cartilage injuries.

Carmell’s innovative plastics use the body’s own growth and regenerative factors to naturally promote tissue healing. Carmell’s UIG was used to study which orthopedic application would be the best target for commercial development. Subsequently, BFTP/IW invested $200,000 in Carmell Therapeutics.

The investment has helped Carmell develop its first product, the Plasmix™ Surgical Patch for rotator cuff and tendon injuries.  The Company is also developing a second product for bone and cartilage called the Plasmix Cartilage Repair Plug, a biodegradable rod with mechanical properties similar to osteochondral tissue.

“There is an entrepreneurial spirit here in Pittsburgh, and we are starting to get noticed outside the region,” said Alan West, president & CEO of Carmell Therapeutics. West estimates clinical trials with humans could start in a year, a critical step along the path to commercialization and use in patients—a long way from the technology’s beginnings in a university lab.

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This article was featured in
Keynotes December, 2010
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