Tech Launch Arizona Coaches New Business Teams to Success: One Wins $50,000 with Polished Pitch

Tuesday, November 1, 2016
The TLA/Avery Therapeutics team, from left to right: Bruce Burgess (TLA), Jordan Lancaster, Ph.D. (Avery), Jen Watson, Ph.D. (Avery), Tod McCauley (TLA), Su Jun Lim (TLA), and Eric Smith (TLA). Photo credit: Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Tucson, Ariz. – Last week at the Get Started Tucson business pitch competition hosted by Cox Business, judges selected just eight teams out of a pool of 69 applicant companies to pitch to the Tucson version of ABC’s Shark Tank. Of those, two were companies working to commercialize technologies invented at the University of Arizona.

Both teams are working closely with the Business Development team at Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), the office of the UA that commercializes the inventions stemming from University research, to bring their technologies from the lab to the market.

The first of the two to pitch their concept was UA startup Sharing Tribes, LLC. With company co-founder Anita Bhappu, Ph.D., as their voice, she described their solution, a software-as-a-service platform Bhappu developed at the Norton School of Family Consumer Sciences in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Sharing Tribes connects coworkers in a private company marketplace to borrow and lend goods plus volunteer services to help each other and build community engagement.

Next up was Avery Therapeutics, Inc., a company working toward commercializing a beating heart graft technology based on the research of Steve Goldman, M.D., professor of medicine at the UA Sarver Heart Center, and Jordan Lancaster, Ph.D., who earned his doctorate in physiology from the College of Medicine-Tucson. The company’s chief operating officer, Jen Watson Koevary, Ph.D., who earned her doctorate in biomedical engineering at the UA and works at the University as a research assistant professor, delivered the winning pitch.

In the end, the judges’ nod went to Avery Therapeutics, who came away with the $60,000 first prize, which includes $25,000 cash donated by Cox Business, plus a Cox Business internet and phone technology package, a profile in Inc. Magazine, an opportunity to pitch to the Desert Angels local investor group, admission into Startup Tucson’s Thryve Scale Up Program, and one year of office space at the CoLab co-working space in downtown Tucson.

Assisting Avery’s Acceleration

Drs. Goldman and Lancaster originally developed the beating heart graft technology – called MyCardia™ – through their research at the Sarver Heart Center, and the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson. Today, they serve as Avery’s chief medical and chief science officers, respectively.

TLA facilitated the process of defining the heart graft technology and provided asset development funding to develop it towards market-readiness. The office is currently collaborating with Avery and providing guidance as it moves toward completing a license for the intellectual property for the technology – owned by the UA – and officially becoming a University startup.

This past August, the team received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant of almost $500,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which it is using to begin manufacture of the beating heart graft technology.

Pre-clinical studies have already shown that MyCardia improves heart function. With  this new funding, Avery will develop manufacturing, cryopreservation, storage and reconstitution methods that will allow the company to develop its current technology into a viable off-the-shelf graft. 

According to Dr. Goldman, “MyCardia has the potential to be the first ‘off-the-shelf’ tissue engineered stem cell product to treat heart failure.”

A key TLA team member, Mentor-in-Residence Bruce Burgess, says that “the magnitude of this Phase SBIR 1 award underscores the significance and potential of Avery's novel approach for chronic heart failure treatment.”

Most recently, the Avery team went through the 3-week NSF I-Corps program at TLA, which provided the team with coaching to develop their strategy and a financial grant for customer discovery.

This week, Avery Therapeutics will be traveling to Berlin, Germany, to make their pitch at Falling Walls, an international conference on “breakthroughs in science and society.”

Sharing Expertise with Sharing Tribes

Bhappu made the Get Started Tucson pitch for her team. Working with TLA, Bhappu co-founded Sharing Tribes and licensed the intellectual property for the program from the University.

Along with Bhappu, company co-founders include Chief Technology Officer William Kasica and Chief Operating Officer David Sebastian.

The team’s software-as-a-service platform connects coworkers in private company marketplaces to borrow and lend goods as well as volunteer services to help each other. Their mobile application has a familiar and intuitive retail user interface that enhances the coordination of sharing exchanges through scheduling, tracking and notifications.

Earlier this year, they engaged with TLA’s business development team and are working with Mentor-in-Residence Kevin McLaughlin. With him as their mentor, they also completed the University’s NSF I-Corps program.

Supporting Stellar Startups

While both teams move steadily forward, their beginnings will always remain the same: both have started based on technologies invented at the U of A.

On the academic side, researchers like Bhappu, Goldman and Lancaster have great academic credentials and they know their inventions “inside and out.”

To help them translate that expertise into business the business world, the TLA Business Development program brings to the table funding to develop their technologies, mentoring to help them form leadership teams, connections to industry, support for funding opportunities, and learning opportunities like the NSF I-Corps program, which helped both teams better understand their target customers and polish their pitches.

“Our goal is to provide the comprehensive set of tools and services to help these companies get the best start they can out of the gate,” says TLA Director of Business Development Joann MacMaster. “They need expert help with that transition from the University to the commercial world, that’s what we provide.”

Photograph: The TLA/Avery Therapeutics team, from left to right: Bruce Burgess (TLA), Jordan Lancaster, Ph.D. (Avery), Jen Watson, Ph.D. (Avery), Tod McCauley (TLA), Su Jun Lim (TLA), and Eric Smith (TLA). Photo credit: Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

- written by Paul Tumarkin
Paul Tumarkin