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First recipients of Translational Investment Fund show significant progress toward commercialization at inaugural event.

Texas A&M Innovation recently held its first Translational Investment Fund (TIF) showcase to highlight progress and accomplishments as a result of some of the first-round investments in faculty and staff innovations. The TIF program, launched in the summer of 2020, aims to de-risk disclosed university technologies by infusing up to $75,000 in funding to bridge the common gaps that arise in development of early-stage technologies that show promise to be impactful in the marketplace. As projects from the first round of investments approached closeout, inventors shared their achievements with stakeholders from around the university including their peers, members of the selection committee, and members of university leadership at varying levels.

Megan Brown, Assistant Director at Texas A&M Innovation and acting program manager for the Translational Investment Fund, said the showcase is not only a chance for awardees to publicly present their projects, but an opportunity to continue the department’s educational mission.

“Leading up to the event, we are coaching inventors to go beyond reporting what they accomplished and to incorporate the investment’s impact to the development of the technology and necessary next steps to enable partnership with industry,” Brown said. “We want inventors to become accustomed to thinking about why their work matters – in what ways did the project increase the technology’s attractiveness to the commercial market and what the potential impact to society might be with the introduction of their technology.”

Dr. Michael Sharer, the chair of the Translational Investment Fund selection committee, believes strongly in the benefits of these types of programs.

“Programs such as this are critical to helping speed up market adoption and address specific technical roadblocks that can otherwise prevent a nascent technology from having commercial impact,” said Sharer. “This first set of projects again demonstrated how valuable this program is and based on the progress our PIs have made and the positive results we saw, I am now much more optimistic about the commercial potential of this group of inventions.”

One of the showcase projects, led by Dr. Wenshe Liu in the Department of Chemistry, involved testing the drug Bepridil, a medication already in use for other diseases that shows promise in preventing COVID-19 infections.

“Although NIH and NSF provide substantial fundings for basic research, there are fewer funding mechanisms from both funding agencies to support the transition between basic and translational research,” said Dr. Liu. “The TIF fund is critical in promoting the bench-to-bed transition research. It allows us to demonstrate the efficacy of bepridil as a treatment regimen for COVID-19 in a mouse model. This would not have been possible if the TIF fund was not available.”

During the award period, Dr. Liu and his team were able to advance the technology to a point where it was of interest to a commercial partner and the intellectual property rights have now been exclusively licensed to a large biopharmaceutical company. Discussions are in the works around adding a potential sponsored research arrangement back to Dr. Liu’s lab for further product development.

A second project highlighted at this year’s showcase explored a nanomedicine technology to aid in relieving Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), developed by Dr. Srinath Palakurthi of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. As IBD is a chronic condition affecting more than seven million people worldwide, costing about $6.8 billion annually, Dr. Palakurthi’s work could have a large potential impact. The funding from the TIF, according to Dr. Palakurthi, allowed him to conduct mission critical product characterization and pharmacokinetic studies and demonstrate superior efficacy of the product as compared to the currently marketed drug products.  “Because product-characterization studies such as these are not supported by traditional NIH funding programs, seeking funding support from special programs such as Small business investment research (SBIR)/Small business technology transfer (STTR) are not without any risks related to intellectual property (IP) rights transfer,” said Palakurthi. “The TIF program has been very supportive of our research and feedback [during the showcase] was very helpful in planning the future studies of the project.”

Many technologies are very early stage in their development cycle for commercial application and have several necessary steps that need to be taken to advance the technology to a point where it might be of interest to an industry partner. According to Brown, Dr. Palakurthi’s project provides a relatable example for many innovators with pharmaceutical technologies across campus of types of early-stage projects that are eligible for and can benefit from the program.

The final project presented at the showcase focused on Augmented Reality-powered instruction technology, developed by Dr. Wei Yan of the Department of Architecture and his team, using virtual LEGO® bricks to accurately guide assembly, manufacturing, and construction projects. “The team encountered major challenges with the technology that negatively impacted user experience. The TIF strongly supported our project’s commercial development to overcome the challenges by developing a new method and its prototype by using multiple 3D model-based AR registration. These enhancements allowed BRICKxAR to be significantly easier to use for hand-held assembly and facilitated a more immersive AR experience,” said Yan. “The TIF program provided us with the unique funding opportunity, clear reporting requirements, a well-organized showcase, and strong social media promotion for our project.”

Dr. Yan and his team made significant improvements to the technology, refined their product-market fit, and are now pursuing customer discovery efforts and formation of a university spinout. “This is another pathway, growing in interest, for taking a technology to the market. We have connected the project team with our New Ventures unit so they can work more closely together on a path forward, examining what types of resources and support the team may need for starting a new company,” said Brown.

The program will survey ongoing development efforts of these technologies to identify commercially relevant milestones achieved in follow-on to these projects. “As we continue to track these projects, we are looking for significant events related to funding, stage of development, licensing, etc. to help us continue to evaluate and measure the impact of the TIF program,” said Brown.

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