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January 5, 2015

UConn incubator seeks partnerships beyond bioscience

PHOTO | Pablo Robles Rita Zangari, UConn director of innovation programs at the Office of the Vice President of Research, wants to drive a greater diversity of companies and industries into TIP, beyond bioscience.
A construction crew builds the addition to the UConn Cell & Genome Sciences Building in Farmington.
One of the lab spaces in Farmington where incubator companies can advance their technology.
PHOTO | Pablo Robles Natalie D'Oyen, associate director of the UConn TIP program, works with companies interested in joining the incubator, to determine if they are the right fit. (Right
PHOTO | Pablo Robles Paul Parker, director of UConn TIP, shows the office space that incubator companies can rent in the Cell & Genome Sciences Building in Farmington.

While building new partnerships through its affiliation with Jackson Laboratory, UConn wants to leverage the $19 million expansion of its statewide incubator space to attract more diverse companies and industries, beyond bioscience.

UConn is doubling its available incubator space in Farmington, Storrs, and Groton from 28,000 to 56,000 square feet, allowing the state's flagship university to accommodate up to 67 startups, compared to about 22 today.

“We could almost triple the size of the program right now,” said Paul Parker, director of the UConn Technology Incubation Program.

While most of the space is being added at UConn Health Center's Farmington campus and will house spinoff companies from the research performed at UCHC and Jackson Lab, the university wants companies of all ages and sizes from student startups to established firms looking for technological assistance, in industries ranging from manufacturing to energy.

“Incubators carry the mindset that we are only startups, and we want to be more than that,” said Rita Zangari, UConn's director of innovation programs in the Office of the Vice President of Research.

The three incubator locations carry their own unique traits that will fit certain industries better than others. Farmington and Avery Point are geared toward bioscience while UConn's new partnership with Hartford conglomerate United Technologies Corp. in Storrs focuses on advanced manufacturing. Still, with offices and laboratories in each location, all three can serve a variety of industries.

“Think about us as something more than a life sciences incubator,” Zangari said. “There are things here that would be expensive to buy otherwise.”

UConn has been trying to strengthen its technology transfer efforts for the last few years. In fiscal 2012, the school spent $183.9 million on research activities, up 13 percent from a year earlier, according to the Association of University Technology Managers, which tracks economic development and commercialization efforts by higher education institutions.

That research spending led to 81 new invention disclosures and 36 new U.S. patents, up from 67 inventions and 18 patents a year earlier. The school's researchers also raked in $965,252 in license income, up 27 percent from fiscal 2011, AUTM data shows.

In addition to cultivating startups, UConn wants to create more university partnerships with established firms, where the school can provide faculty expertise and equipment to companies looking to develop new products or solve an existing problem.

UConn doesn't want to compete with private incubators like reSET in Hartford or the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, Zangari said; the school wants startups and partnerships best served by UConn's facilities and faculty expertise.

Roughly half of the companies that inquire about joining the Technology Incubation Program make it through the initial screening process and are approved by a committee. Based on their idea and business model, the committee awards startups workspace and access to anything at UConn that can help them develop. All TIP companies pay rent, unless they're run by students.

“When we first look at them, we ask 'Is the company going to be a good fit for the TIP, and will the TIP be a good fit for them?'” said Natalie D'Oyen, TIP associate director.

ImStem Biotechnology was approved for TIP less than two years ago, occupying office and lab space in Farmington. The company, founded off UConn research, seeks to use stem cells to cure multiple sclerosis, among other diseases and conditions.

“Having all the access at UConn has been really, really helpful. It has enabled us to do a lot more,” said Adam Lazorchak, senior scientist at ImStem. “We can do everything we need to do.”

The latest company to join TIP was the first Jackson Lab spinoff. MultiClonal Therapeutics joined TIP on Dec. 10, occupying space in Farmington to research and develop ways to treat diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and airways — like Crohn's Disease — using stem cells. MCT's co-founder Frank McKeon already has received a $1.1 million grant from the State Bond Commission for his research.

Having UConn's incubator space nestled close to UCHC and Jackson Lab will be critical to making the Bioscience Connecticut initiative successful, said Susan Froshauer, president and CEO of CURE, the state's bioscience trade group.

“When I started my biotech company years ago, there was no place to put it,” said Froshauer, who co-founded New Haven's Rib-X Pharmaceuticals. “By building these workspaces and incubators, we are addressing the critical lack of entrepreneurs, of startups, and of places for them to bump into each other.”

The new incubation space being added at UConn is designed to have more community spaces, so TIP scientists and researchers can share ideas and help solve problems, Zangari said.

“Scientists like to interact, but sometimes it is hard to get them out of their labs,” Zangari said.

Of the companies that enter TIP, roughly two-thirds are successful in that they graduate onto bigger things, Parker said. They either start making too much money to need the incubator, need more space than UConn can accommodate, or get purchased by a larger organization.

Even after they graduate, TIP will work with companies by helping them with local permitting so they can build labs of their own, providing research assistance, supporting grant applications, and mapping roads to regulatory approvals.

“The relationship doesn't end the day they leave here,” Parker said.

Even for companies that don't graduate, TIP doesn't view their time in the program as a failure, Zangari said. The incubator provided support for them to research their ideas and ultimately find out they weren't practical or financially viable, leaving room for the entrepreneurs to move onto more viable ideas.

“The incubator allows entrepreneurs to fail at a lot less cost,” Zangari said. “They didn't spend a lot of money finding out that their idea didn't work.

“Instead of starting a business home alone in your basement or garage, we have people here to support you,” she said.

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