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November 17, 2014

Big bioscience plans start with small ideas

Rendering | HBJ File The UConn Health Center in Farmington, shown above, is adding 28,000 square feet of incubator space that aims to nurture scientific discoveries into new business opportunities.
Mun Choi, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, UConn
Cato Laurencin, director, Institute for Regenerative Engineering, UConn

While Jackson Laboratory has grabbed most of the attention lately around efforts to turn UConn Health Center's Farmington campus into a major economic driver, UCHC leaders say they see the real impact from the state's bioscience initiative coming in small ideas incubating in newly renovated lab space.

When complete, the $1 billion Bioscience Connecticut investment will more than double the amount of incubator space at UConn, giving students, researchers, and the bioscience community greater opportunity to cultivate ideas and patents into startups and eventually full-fledged businesses.

“At its least, it is about workforce development and research,” said Mun Choi, UConn's provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

The Greater Hartford business community can look to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge as the potential UCHC's expansion can have on Connecticut, said Cato Laurencin, director of the UConn Institute for Regenerative Engineering, which operates out of the Health Center's Farmington campus.

MIT has more than 200 small, medium, and large companies surrounding its campus, supporting its research and, in turn, spinning out new business applications. UConn, where bioengineering is the fastest growing academic department, has already started down this path with much room to grow, Laurencin said.

“The big culture change [at UCHC] has been the thought that the medical center is the driver of economic development,” Laurencin said.

Laurencin said for every $1 million in grant funding UCHC receives from the National Institutes of Health, 10 jobs will be created along with one invention disclosure. Those disclosures can lead to patents and eventually full-fledged companies.

“This can be a real economic driver for the state,” Laurencin said.

Laurencin and Choi, speaking at the Connecticut Business & Industry Association's recent annual meeting, pointed to five startup businesses already up and running based on UCHC research:

• Natural Polymer Devices formed in 2011 to use bioactive materials to repair and replace damaged hard tissue in people's bodies. The materials were developed in the UCHC Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

• DuraBiotech, which already has 11 employees, is part of the UConn Technology Incubation Program. The company has developed a heart valve that lasts four times longer than other heart valves.

• Macroscopic Solution is a company of scientific researchers selling a low-cost, portable 3D imaging product that helps other scientific researchers find the microscopic information they need.

• Smpl Bio's seven-member founding team has developed a discovery tool that allows researchers to extract important information from complex data sets.

• Voda's team of five UConn engineers and designers has developed a product called SmartWell that allows consumers to customize water-based beverages.

“The student workforce is an incredible plus that we have at the University of Connecticut,” Laurencin said. “Many of the individuals here want to be a part of Connecticut businesses and want to stay in Connecticut.”

Choi told the CBIA crowd the best way they could support Bioscience Connecticut is to hire UConn students as interns, so they can get to know the business community and lead collaboration as more research comes online.

Businesses also can work hand-in-hand with UConn researchers to develop new technologies companies need immediately, Choi said. UConn also can provide businesses access to expensive equipment companies might not be able to afford on their own, and trained UConn students and researchers can perform tasks at businesses' requests.

“We can work with you on research you need,” Choi said.

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