Release Date: February 4, 2018
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Three University at Buffalo startups have received six-figure awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the commercialization of promising technologies that could benefit society by improving health care and providing broader access to clean water.
The new funding recognizes the potential impact of the UB startups, which are working to improve the safety of MRI scans, enable early identification of unruptured brain aneurysms, and help alleviate drinking water shortages worldwide.
“The federal SBIR and STTR programs are extremely competitive, and the success of these UB spinoff companies in securing funding is a testament to the promise of their technologies,” says Venu Govindaraju, PhD, UB vice president for research and economic development.
“UB invests time and resources into commercializing technologies developed by our researchers. In recent years, the university has increased support for students and faculty who are making the transition to becoming entrepreneurs,” Govindaraju says. “The progress that UB-affiliated startups are making reflects the success of these efforts, as well as the vibrancy of the ecosystem that we and our many partners are building.”
UB's efforts to commercialize discoveries are helping to drive economic development in the region, with dozens of UB faculty, staff and students starting companies in recent years. These businesses develop products and services that benefit society and create jobs in Western New York.
Support from UB begins when faculty and student researchers approach the university with a discovery that holds promise for becoming a commercial product or service.
UB’s Technology Transfer and Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships teams — part of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development — help inventors understand their innovations from a business standpoint: What is the real-world problem that a product helps to solve? What is the size of the market for the product? What research and development (R&D) needs to happen to get the product to consumers, and how will that R&D be funded?
UB follows through on these initial conversations by protecting UB discoveries with patent applications and providing the resources needed to help spinoffs succeed.
Ferric Contrast, based in the UB Technology Incubator in Amherst, New York, is developing iron-based contrast agents that can be used to produce high-quality MRI images of the brain, vasculature, liver and kidneys, and for detection of tumors resulting from cancer.
The technology could offer an alternative to the gadolinium complexes that have traditionally been employed in MRI. Recent studies have found that gadolinium can accumulate in patients’ brains and other organs, raising safety concerns.
“The U.S. FDA and its counterparts in Europe, Canada and Japan have all been re-evaluating the safety of gadolinium-based contrast agents, and what Ferric Contrast is developing is a suite of iron-based alternatives,” says Ferric Contrast President Bradford La Salle, who co-founded the company with Janet Morrow, PhD, UB Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“The timing couldn’t be better for this technology,” La Salle says. “Doctors and patients want options. We have spoken to radiologists and oncologists and the pharmaceutical industry, and toxicity is a huge concern. They’re very interested in what we’re doing.”
Unlike gadolinium, iron — the focus of Ferric Contrast’s work — is found naturally in humans. Iron occurs in red blood cells, and the body has ways of clearing and recycling the element, says Morrow, who serves as the company’s chief scientific officer.
Ferric Contrast has shown that its contrast agents can be used to obtain clear images of bodily organs and brain tumors, and the new STTR funding will allow the company to conduct further studies demonstrating the efficacy of its chemical complexes.
Moving forward, the firm will also complete toxicity studies that examine the safety of its contrast agents. Patrick Burns, a recent UB PhD graduate in chemistry, is the company’s lead chemist.
UB has supported Ferric Contrast in many ways, with UB’s Bruce Holm Memorial Catalyst Fund providing seed funding for R&D, and the Office of Research Advancement assisting the firm in preparing the STTR proposal. UB also helped the company compete successfully for $50,000 in the FuzeHub Commercialization Competition.
Staff in UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development introduced Morrow and Pavel Tsitovich — then a postdoctoral associate working in Morrow’s lab — to La Salle and helped the three apply for and complete the NSF I-Corps program, which prepares scientists to commercialize discoveries. In I-Corps, Morrow and La Salle conducted extensive market research on their product, including in-person interviews with dozens of potential clients.
The two also participated in the Pre-Seed Workshop hosted by UB, a business boot camp that helps entrepreneurs understand what it takes to start a high-tech business.
Neurovascular Diagnostics, based in the UB Biosciences Incubator in downtown Buffalo, is developing a low-cost blood test for detecting unruptured brain aneurysms.
Today, brain aneurysms are identified through tests such as magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), an expensive and time-consuming procedure that involves imaging the brain.
Neurovascular Diagnostics hopes to save lives by lowering detection costs, enabling doctors to identify and provide preventative treatment to patients who have unruptured aneurysms but exhibit no symptoms, says entrepreneur Jeff Harvey, chief financial officer of Neurovascular Diagnostics.
Harvey, whose wife died about 15 years ago from ruptured aneurysms, launched Neurovascular Diagnostics in 2016 with Hui Meng, PhD, the company’s chief scientific officer and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Vincent Tutino, company president and CEO and a PhD graduate of the biomedical engineering department in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.
“I lost my wife 15 years ago from a brain aneurysm, which is how I became interested in this,” Harvey says. “My children may be at risk because it’s thought that there’s a genetic component to developing these aneurysms, so they’ll need to be tested on a regular basis.
“The test we’re developing is important because the way you determine if you have an unruptured brain aneurysm today is to have an MRA,” Harvey says. “An MRA is expensive, and insurance companies may not pay for it because these patients often do not have any symptoms.”
Neurovascular Diagnostics is Harvey’s second UB spinoff. His first — Tonus Therapeutics — focused on development of a drug for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal genetic disease affecting young boys. Harvey started the firm with UB medical researchers after discovering that his grandson had the illness. The rights to Tonus’s drug, which is under development, were acquired by Akashi Therapeutics in Massachusetts.
Neurovascular Diagnostics was founded based on research by Meng and Tutino, her PhD student, who discovered differences in gene expression within the neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) of people who have intracranial aneurysms.
The work has been supported by multiple awards from the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, with the majority of the funding coming from the Carol W. Harvey Memorial Chair of Research, which remembers Jeff Harvey’s wife. The project was actually funded through this memorial fund before Jeff Harvey and the UB team ever met — Jeff Harvey had been giving to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation for many years and found Meng and Tutino’s research extremely interesting. This relationship later led to the formation of the company.
Neurovascular Diagnostics is partnering with DxTerity, a Los Angeles-based genomics company, to design further studies and develop a From-Home blood test that can detect these variations. The new SBIR award will help to advance this research.
UB has connected Neurovascular Diagnostics with numerous resources designed to accelerate commercialization.
Staff in UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development helped the firm secure its SBIR award, introducing Neurovascular Diagnostics to InteliSpark, an Ithaca-based consulting firm that assists startups in competing for SBIR and STTR funding.
The university has also provided more direct support. UB Center for Advanced Technology in Big Data and Health Sciences (UB CAT) provided seed funding for R&D, supplementing a $45,000 award from the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. UB’s Career Experience Program, which funds internships in the life sciences and advanced manufacturing sectors, has placed a UB student with Neurovascular Diagnostics for the spring semester. The Career Experience Program and UB CAT are funded by Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR).
In addition, Neurovascular Diagnostics has partnered on research with Adnan Siddiqui, MD, PhD, and Kenneth Snyder, MD, PhD, both faculty members in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and neurosurgeons with UBMD Neurosurgery.
Sunny Clean Water is developing a highly efficient solar still, a device that uses the power of the sun to clean and desalinate water.
The company’s current prototype — about the size of a mini fridge — uses sunlight and dark nanofabric materials to evaporate water, leaving behind salt, germs, dirt and other foreign matter. Then, the water condenses back into a liquid state in a clean container.
This patent-pending system is able to evaporate water three times faster than the natural evaporation rate, says Qiaoqiang Gan, PhD, associate professor of electrical engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Sunny Clean Water’s technology could help solve two global market needs: First, the device could broaden access to drinking water, including in developing areas and regions facing temporary shortages due to causes including natural disasters. In addition, the technology could be of interest to the salt industry, enabling producers to accelerate the evaporation of water from brine ponds that generate salts that provide materials for high-tech uses.
Sunny Clean Water will use the new SBIR funding to develop additional prototypes of the company’s system for field testing.
“Solar vapor generation is one of the oldest methods for purifying contaminated water and obtaining salt from brine. However, conventional technologies are energetically demanding. Our enhanced solar still system is a sustainable alternative, requiring no electricity,” Gan says.
He founded the company with Zongmin Bei, PhD, a senior research support specialist in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Zongfu Yu, PhD, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Haomin Song, a recent UB PhD graduate in electrical engineering, serves as Sunny Clean Water’s chief technical officer.
UB has supported Sunny Clean Water since the company’s inception.
Staff within UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development connected Gan with resources to help set up his company, and also assisted Gan in preparing Sunny Clean Water’s SBIR proposal: “Without their help, we could not have gotten the funding,” he says.
Sunny Clean Water conducted market research on its product through UB’s NSF I-Corps Site program, run by UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development. UB also helped the company apply successfully for NEXUS-NY, a clean energy seed accelerator that provides financial, business and educational support to entrepreneurial teams.