Fusing Chemistry and Commerce

Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Assistant Professor Michael Heien, Ph.D., in his lab with a graduate student.

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (CBC) at the University of Arizona’s College of Science has long been a powerhouse in research. Having built a close partnership with Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), it is now the University’s leading producer of intellectual property.

Prior to the Never Settle strategic plan, the entire College of Science disclosed about 23 inventions per year.

Then, in 2012, UA President Ann Weaver Hart brought Vice President David Allen, Ph.D., aboard to lead Tech Launch Arizona and build a culture around innovation and commercialization. The unit would be tasked with bringing the inventions emanating from University research to market to create social and economic impact.

Building on the TLA relationship, the 45 CBC faculty members today are producing about 50 invention disclosures – approximately 25 percent 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 inventive ideas of CBC faculty are making their way out into the world through commercial pathways.

“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, Ph.D., head of CBC. “It’s the mindset of the entrepreneurial faculty member that moves things toward commercialization.”

CBC has historically been a catalyst for impact through bringing such research to market; companies such as Selectide (predecessor to Sanofi) and GlycoSurf are prime examples of startups that emerged from innovative, entrepreneurial faculty.

That transformation of research into marketable products happens in collaboration with TLA, which helps faculty protect inventions through the patent process, and turn them into intellectual property (IP). That IP is then licensed to existing companies or startups, and the UA receives royalties in exchange for use of the knowledge.

It’s a win-win for the department, the researchers, and the entire University.

“TLA has streamlined the whole process,” says Mielsfeld, “and now that natural entrepreneurial spirit of chemists and biochemists can be manifested at the University of Arizona.”  

An Experimental Run

At the urging of Paul Eynott, Ph.D., TLA’s licensing manager embedded in the College of Science, Miesfeld decided to try out the process with an invention of his own.

With a Ph.D. in pharmacology, 12 years of experience in the industry and an executive M.B.A. from the Eller College of Management, Eynott is uniquely suited to serve as the bridge between the worlds of scientific research and business. 

Miesfeld recalls, “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. 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 Dow Chemical to license the IP.

After that success, Miesfeld was sold; he told his faculty that the process worked, and that those with great ideas should start bringing them to TLA.

“Now, not only are there no barriers to our ideas,” says Miesfeld, “but there is a reaching out to develop those ideas to where it’ll go somewhere.”

Chemistry by Design

Associate Professor Jon Njardarson, Ph.D. 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 (OIA), Njardarson developed Chemistry by Design, an elegant mobile app that helps people learn organic chemistry.

He is working with TLA to commercialize the app. To date, users worldwide have downloaded Chemistry by Design over 85,000 times – all by word of mouth, no advertising involved.

“I really enjoy being able to realize an idea,” says Njardarson. “There’s nothing more satisfying to a scientist than sketching out an idea and seeing it realized.”

With Cancer, It’s Personal 

Associate Professor Katrina Miranda, Ph.D., studies a class of molecules called nitrogen oxides, focusing on the treatment of breast cancer The disease has touched many people in her life, including a high school classmate, her godmother, her sister and her partner. 

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. To that end, Miranda is working with TLA on a patent, as well as starting a company to develop her invention to be more attractive to a large pharmaceutical company.

“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. They’re helping me get to where I want to go.”

Probing the Possibilities

In another CBC lab, Assistant Professor Michael Heien, Ph.D., 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,” explains Heien. “We’ve come up with some coatings to make these sensors really phenomenal in their ability and unsurpassed related to traditional technologies.”.

(Over time, the body’s immune response to such probes can render them ineffective or altogether nonoperational.) 

Hein and TLA have filed a patent for the invention, but the range of the use of the technology has reached much farther than he expected.

“The patent that we filed said we’d use it in the brain to prevent biofouling, but it’s also useful to aircraft manufacturers because you can coat carbon fibers and get better adhesion to the polymers used in building aircraft parts,” he explains. “That’s not something we would normally think of in our research… There are a lot of things out there to consider.”

Dengue and Deep Water

Assistant Professor John Jewett, Ph.D., 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 that in aqueous solution, they react to form covalent bonds.

In other words, 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?,” remembers Jewett. “That actually got my wheels turning.”

Jewett had been so focused on understanding the virus that he didn’t see the potential uses for the idea. Since talking with Eyenott, they have filed patents for the technology for applications such as fixing cracks in deep water oil pipelines.

“If you have an adhesive that can bond covalently on that crack and it works better in water, now you have a way of potentially sealing a crack in an extreme setting,” says Jewett. As they’ve gone through the process, he says, “TLA has been very enabling.”

A Replicable Model for Success

For Eynott, leaving the pharmaceutical industry to work in university commercialization serving faculty was “where his passion lies,” and he hasn’t looked back. His work – and that of the entire TLA team – is transforming commercialization both across CBC and the entire university.

“My day-to-day role is on the ground with faculty,” he explains. “I’m one of them. I speak their language.”

While he speaks the language of science, he also provides the voice of business, and pushes faculty to think differently about their research. He not only helps identify and report inventions through TLA’s disclosure process, he helps them file patents, access proof-of-concept funding, and connect faculty with valuable industry contacts.

It all started with the trust, transparency, and positive relationship built between Eynott and Miesfeld. Today, the TLA-CBC partnership continues to develop on that foundation.

Eynott plans to replicate the success with CBC across other departments in the College of Science.

“I’m really excited about next year,” he says. “I think there’s a huge amount of growth still to be realized and I think it’s a really exciting time for the U of A.”

- written by
Paul Tumarkin