By Tyler Greer
This past spring, Andrews, Vaidya and Pillay — all School of Engineering faculty members and researchers — became the first UAB group to win the contest since its inception in 2004, and they received $100,000 to help start their company Innovative Composite Solutions (ICS).
Behind the scenes, a great deal of work was done to get the group to the finish line.
“Our mode of thinking had to be adjusted from pure academic research and development to pursuing commercial business opportunities,” Vaidya says. “The UAB Research Foundation (UABRF) helped us in several ways.”
The UABRF helped ICS protect its intellectual property rights and negotiate, manage and monitor its research, option and licensing agreements. UABRF also helped the three colleagues form a business plan to design, develop and manufacture high-end thermoplastic composite components for the military, aerospace, mass transit and other high-demand industries. The groups worked and learned together, and ICS received precious start-up capital from Launchpad.
UAB-based companies are knocking on the door of success in the competition again this year. Nine of the 20 top start-up companies in this year’s competition have UAB ties. The UABRF has helped more than half of those groups lay the groundwork for their companies and prepare to present their ideas to the Alabama Launchpad reviewers and judges, says Deborah Bidanset, Ph.D., assistant director of technology transfer for in the UABRF. The top 20 companies will be entering Phase III of the competition in February, and eight finalists will be announced March 5. The top three winning companies will be announced in April.
Bidanset says this year’s group of UAB start-up companies had many of the same qualities as previous groups. Some were very aware of what they had and what they wanted. Others didn’t know where to start.
“We always see a mix of people,” Bidanset says. “Some don’t know to ask for the help, and we start nursing them through and show them the way they need to go. Some say they want to start a company, and that’s as far as they’ve gotten. Some come in with really great technology and know they want to start a company. They work with us from the very beginning. They look to us for guidance on how to bring UAB technology into their company.”
Having an impact
Alabama Launchpad is a not-for-profit organization created to support and promote high-growth entrepreneurship and innovation in Alabama. It is a partnership among the state’s research universities and the business community, and the Alabama Launchpad Business Plan Competition attracts many participants each year.
Every new business needs start-up capital, and the top three in the competition receive hefty monetary prizes ranging from $100,000 for first place to $25,000 for third.
ICS was the first UAB start-up company to win first place, but others have finished in the top three in previous years.
“We’re very glad to see UAB do so well,” says Glenn Kinstler, director of Alabama Launchpad. “We’re very pleased by the hard work a number of folks at UAB have put into Launchpad. The UABRF has been encouraging companies to enter Launchpad, and other parts of the campus also are very involved. Douglas Ayers, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing and director of MBA programs at UAB, is on the Launchpad board of directors. They have helping them think about issues start-up companies face from the business-model perspective.”
Indeed, translating the science of a therapeutic compound or any new product or research tool is essential to success in the competition.
“Your business plan is not the same as writing for an NIH award,” says David Winwood, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the UABRF. “You’ve got to reach a different audience. All of the science has to be completely compelling and defensible, and then it has to be flavored with ‘and here’s why this makes business sense if you want to make an investment in it. It’s going to meet a market need that so far has not been met, and there’s a real opportunity to make more from this than you will have to put into it.’ With Innovative Composite Solutions, for example, we sort of nurtured and mentored them through the process to the point where they understood what the judges would want to know.”
This included helping the group conduct mock presentations of their business plan and providing critiques.
“We just try and put ourselves in the judges’ place and address what we would be looking for if we were them,” Winwood says. “Does it make sense? Do the quoted sales estimates make sense? Is it realistic to say you will get this far in that time frame, when in fact we know there are several regulatory hurdles you have to clear before you get there? Judges are going to look at these timelines. Are they appropriate? Are the expenses you’re anticipating appropriate? Is the market you have described realistic?
“This is not always an area that’s familiar to folks who are primarily driven by research,” Winwood says. “This venture into business is a different world.”
Vaidya agrees with Winwood. He says the mock presentations they conducted with the UABRF group provided an excellent critique.
“This helped us greatly in tailoring our presentation to Alabama Launchpad,” Vaidya says. “The UABRF was also key in formalizing the exclusive license of our company’s thin-walled carbon-composite products, and they continue to provide strong support in terms of intellectual property, patenting issues and opportunities between UAB research and development and opportunities for ICS.”
Researchers are encouraged to work closely with the UAB Research Foundation to secure disclosures, protect intellectual property and file patent applications before disclosing the information publicly.
“If you think you have an invention, disclose it to us promptly — before you submit a manuscript for publication and before you address a meeting, conference, seminar or symposium,” Bidanset says. “We can help in these areas and with business development advice.”
Contact information for the UABRF is online at www.uab.edu/uabrf.
UAB businesses among 2011 Top 20 Startup Companies
• 4K NutriPharma International is focused on the development of natural adjunct and primary therapeutics (or “nutriceuticals”) for human disease that have their foundation in natural products.
• Aquifex is developing reagent products that enable users to generate more accurate quantitative data from mass spectrometry analyses with significantly greater speed and lower cost.
• FPAcumen will help groups within medium and large corporations in any industry to analyze, calculate and communicate the financial impact of business decisions.
• KOR Therapies LLC is an early-stage drug-discovery company that will meet the market need for truly effective anti-arrhythmic drugs with its protected, first-in-class targets.
• Lab Data Manager is a Web-based application that will use the latest HTML5 concepts to bring a higher level of usability or natural-use techniques to its users.
• Nature’s Tap is a water-conservation firm that provides residential and small business water-recycling system installation and maintenance.
• Regenerative Solutions is a biotechnology and life sciences company that is ultimately focused on the discovery of novel therapeutics for the treatment of fibrosis.
• SITECH provides geospatial solutions to create a complete 3D landscape visualization for cultural heritage management issues that affect industry.
• Virotek is a biotechnological company specializing in a new, fundamentally different treatment approach for cancer.