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Photo: Vertex Pharmaceuticals conducts antiviral and antibacterial research at the BioVentures Center in the UI Research Park. The Research Park is home to a world class business incubator program that has nurtured nearly 100 UI spinouts and other new ventures since its start in 1984. File photo by Tim Schoon.

In a meeting with state business and education leaders today, Friday, Feb. 13, University of Iowa President Sally Mason outlined steps the UI is taking to accelerate the transfer of biomedical research into the marketplace.

The remarks were shared during the Iowa Innovation Council’s Biomedical Roundtable at the BioVentures Center in the UI Research Park. Doane Chilcoat, Bioscience Workgroup co-chair for the council, facilitated the meeting.

Created by legislation in 2010, the Iowa Innovation Council is a working group of Iowa business leaders, regents university, and community college officials charged with developing strategies to encourage and support innovation in Iowa. It is aimed at creating the high-paying jobs of the future and ensuring that Iowa remains competitive in a global economy.

Mason said the number of startups based on biomedical research at the UI continues to grow. But she said that for every successful company, “there are faculty researchers here in Iowa who want to launch startups and bring their biotech therapies and devices to market but can’t find the capital, C-level management or talented workforce to make the leap.”

She said the UI Office of Research and Economic Development established new objectives last year and began reconfiguring resources and leadership to reach its goals, which include:

  • Streamline and accelerate the process of turning ideas and discoveries into commercial products, services, and businesses
  • Foster entrepreneurship within the university and across Iowa
  • Provide workforce training, small business IT support and professional development

“One of the first things my economic development team, led by Vice President for Research and Economic Development Dan Reed, did last year was spin off its startup venture group from the UI Research Foundation," she said.

The move has allowed the UI Research Foundation to focus on licensing, patents, and the protection of intellectual properties, while UIVentures works to accelerate faculty, postdoctoral associates, and student startups and create an entrepreneurial culture on campus.

UIVentures provides education and mentoring to advance entrepreneurs and emerging growth companies by linking them with the capital, talent and other critical resources they need to succeed.

The UI also launched UI ProtoLabs, partnering with the university’s Physics and Astronomy program and College of Engineering, and M.C. Ginsberg Advanced Design and Manufacturing.

Anyone can apply to use the machine shops and 3D printers at minimal cost to create prototypes of medical devices, mechanical parts, household items, and other inventions that can be used to enhance research or attract investment capital.

“As we speak, our economic development team is developing a proposal for the Innovation Corporation to create Iowa ProtoLabs, in partnership with Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa to coordinate, enhance, and expand this service across the state,” Mason said.

Mason said the more focused, coordinated, and aggressive efforts are paying off.

In FY2014, the UI saw the highest number of disclosures ever—a 44 percent increase over FY2013 and FY2012. It also saw a 29 percent increase in licensing income, a 10 percent increase in options and licenses, and a 4 percent increase in issued patents.

“For FY2015 we’re on track with even bigger numbers,” Mason said. So far this year 25 patents have been issued, 93 patent applications have been filed (compared to 63 this time last year), and there were 25 licenses and options (compared to 17 last year).

“Building off these successes, we are exploring ways to make startup creation even easier for our entrepreneurial faculty and students in the biosciences,” she said.

“First, we are setting up a wet-lab incubator on the medical campus to provide access to shared equipment and inexpensive convenient space. Second, we are building a network of entrepreneurial alumni with biomedical expertise to mentor our fledgling bioscience companies. Third, we are working with the UI Foundation to put together an early-stage venture fund to provide capital to our biomedical startups, many of which are trapped in the commercialization 'valley of death.'"

Additionally, just today (Friday, Feb. 13), the university announced its involvement in apilot project with other National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Awards institutions to develop a standard Accelerated Clinical Trial Agreement.

“We want to accelerate the time it takes to test pharmaceuticals in multi-site studies and get them to market while maintaining the highest levels of safety and oversight,” Mason said.

She said other tools that are helping spark innovation in biotech and other areas is the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center’s Venture School, a six-week entrepreneurship-training program for members of the public and university community. Since fall 2013, venture school has created 54 startup teams, and this spring new cohorts are planned in Council Bluffs, Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids, and Cedar Falls

“We also are looking for new ways to enhance our space and expand the resources available in the University of Iowa Research Park,” Mason said, adding that there are currently 36 companies in the park employing 1,800 people.

One successful startup based in the park is Iowa Approach, a medical device company started in 2012 to commercialize an innovative collection of catheter-based tools used to treat atrial fibrillation. Founder and chief science officer Steve Mickelson, M.D., is an electrophysiology fellow in University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

In November Iowa Approach received an equity investment from Boston Scientific Corporation.

"We’re also working to build up the knowledge economy in Iowa, committing growing resources to STEM education at the K-12 levels and beyond,” Mason said, pointing to JPEC’s Jacobsen Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship and the scheduled opening this fall of the Kirkwood Regional Center in the UI Research Park.

“I believe there are many reasons to be excited and optimistic about the potential for biotech development in Iowa,” Mason said. “I fully expect that within my lifetime we will see a cure for diabetes and a number of blinding eye disease, perhaps as a result of the research taking place this very moment in the University of Iowa’s brand-new Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes and the Wynn Institute for Vision Research.”

More information about UI Ventures, UI ProtoLabs and other programs and initiatives within the Office of Research and Economic Development may be found at the UI Research and Economic Development website.

By Stephen Pradarelli