Tammi Thomas


University of Maryland College Park (UMCP) graduates are some of the most sought-after graduates in the country – Maryland is the No. 1 state for technology and science workforce and second in graduate or professional degree attainment. The state is also the second largest recipient of federal funding for research and UMCP and UMB together ranks 10th in the nation among public universities, according to Ken Porter, director of UM Ventures for UMCP.

UMCP is one of five universities working in partnership with TEDCO as part of our Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII), established in 2012 as a technology transfer program with the goal to grow and accelerate promising technologies through venture creation. Porter is a member of the MII board.

He shares, “We as a state have much to lose. Our graduates are some of the most sought-after in the country. Thanks in part to MII, they have opportunities to remain in Maryland and start companies.”

According to Arti Santhanam, Ph.D., executive director of MII, Maryland’s elevation in national rankings for commercialization is critical. “Investment in tech commercialization and the creation of new business translates to income flowing into the state through follow-on investments, creation of jobs, and retention of the talent trained in labs and corporations in Maryland.”

Fostering an active tech ecosystem with programs like MII to mentor, fund and support the creation of new businesses is key to retaining young talent out of our universities.

“MII lowers the barrier to entrepreneurship. Researchers typically research, publish a paper and move on. Through MII, they explore the opportunities for a single invention and all the ways it can affect society,” states Porter.

Tech transfer program’s mission: Nurture tech-related businesses and retain “highly trained workforce”
Maryland is the No. 1 state for technology and science workforce and second in graduate or professional degree attainment.
Traditionally, researchers receive scientific funding, but not funding to take the idea beyond the lab and no real pathway for how to get it there.

Alla McCoy, director of startup support for UM Ventures at UMCP, shares, “MII helps participants to go outside of their scientific or technology mind-set and develop a business mind-set. They go from discovery to determine all the problems their idea might solve to developing the product or software into a working prototype and creating a commercialization plan.”

She adds, “It’s hard to get early financing in Maryland. In Silicon Valley, anyone with an idea can be funded. Here, with MII funding, our researchers are able to get their product further along and begin generating interest from angel investors.”

MII site miners work with participating universities to identify technologies that might be viable. Selected projects are assigned to entrepreneurs in residence who help researchers develop a commercialization plan and a pathway to market.

UMCP has a wide range of innovations, from machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to natural sciences and engineering.

According to Porter, “We have a diverse pool of entrepreneurs and are able to tap into the potential of students no matter their discipline, including non-STEM disciplines. Recently, we had two researchers develop a way to use computer science to develop a tool to teach students how to play the violin and they are expanding to other instruments. If it weren’t for MII, they might not have considered entrepreneurship.”

UMCP’s Dinesh Manocha, Ph.D., professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering, recently completed a Phase I MII grant. His team determined the commercial viability of a socially compliant robot, one that could walk in crowds and navigate obstacles to complete a task such as delivering food to a passenger at an airport or deliver packages on a college campus.

According to Manocha, “MII is a great program that provides a lot of personalized support. I worked with a lot of people in the transfer office [UM Ventures] and at TEDCO – it’s a fantastic ecosystem that helps faculty commercialize technology and stimulate tech transfer.”

In 2012, University of Maryland tight end Matt Furstenburg approached the chemical engineering department to explore how they might help maintain the grip of the gloves he wore in games – often, the grip would wear off after a couple of practices. With the support of MII, following several years of research and iterative product development between football players and chemical engineers, the team created a gel players could squirt on the gloves to restore tackiness.

Srinivasa Raghavan, professor of chemical engineering at UMCP and part of the team that developed the gel, has extensive experience in commercialization and university tech transfer.

He shares, “MII is the best type of funding. There is an urgency required to achieve the milestones which encourages researchers to be more focused. The application process requires less time to complete, and the response is faster than other types of grants. It’s perfect for a researcher like me who likes to invent new things beyond academic study and to translate technology into practical use.”

Today, a group of students from the team lead the company, Grip Boost, with the gel and an assortment of gloves on the market and generating revenues.

“The venture creation resulting from MII is steadily adding high-paying tech jobs to the state’s economy and is helping us to retain our highly trained workforce that are otherwise lost to surrounding regions and other parts of the country,” states Santhanam.

McCoy shares that prior to 2011 there were researchers who registered LLCs and licensed technologies, but they rarely took a product to market and built a viable business.

MII encourages participating universities to partner with one another, to leverage areas of focus and to complement each other’s strengths. When universities submit a joint MII application, they can qualify for more funding.

Christopher M. Jewell is the MPower professor and Minta Martin professor in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering. He recently completed his second collaborative project with Jonathan Bromberg, who’s with the UMB surgery department, to develop synthetic immunotherapy scaffolds for long-term remission in Type 1 diabetes.

Santhanam shares, “Multiple universities working together and competing with one another leverages the expertise available in each of these schools and improves the quality of products developed. Universities are normally very siloed, but through MII we are knitting the ecosystem together.”

Unlike other funding programs, MII offers an accelerated process which helps universities move more research out of the lab and into a viable commercial product at a faster rate. To date, MII has supported the creation of 144 companies and 298 jobs.

TEDCO, the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, enhances economic empowerment growth through the fostering of an inclusive entrepreneurial innovation ecosystem. TEDCO identifies, invests in and helps grow technology and life science-based companies in Maryland. Learn more at tedcomd.com.

Tammi Thomas is the chief marketing and communications officer at TEDCO.

Source: Washington Business Journal