How does an invention get from “there” to “here”? The University of Arizona is at the cutting edge in science, medicine, optical sciences, engineering, agriculture and other areas — but bringing inventions from the lab to the marketplace is a complex process, calling for talented experts with extensive technical, legal and business knowledge.
When a UA researcher invents something with the potential to impact people’s lives, it’s brought to the attention of Tech Launch Arizona, a UA office that opened in 2013.
If an invention has commercial potential, TLA works with patent attorneys to begin the process of bringing it to the public. That path involves either licensing the invention to an existing company, or creating a startup company.
If a startup company is chosen, Eric Smith, TLA commercialization network manager, steps in. It’s his job to build the best team possible to create the new company. Team members, each bringing their own specialized business connections, are recruited from TLA’s network of 1,400 volunteers with extensive corporate and venture experience. More than half are UA alumni who are passionate about fostering and developing the myriad innovative ideas conceived each year at the UA.
In 2016, UA researchers came up with 250 new inventions. Tech Launch executed 95 licenses, created 14 startup companies, and received more than $2 million in royalty income, says Smith. Inventions by UA staff, such as new software or a medical device, belong to the university, but the royalties they generate are distributed among the department, the college and the inventor’s lab, as well as TLA and other funds.
Smith, a member of Congregation Anshei Israel, graduated from the UA with a bachelor’s degree in business management and entrepreneurship. His grandfather invented the laser that reads bar codes, so you could say inventions are in his genes. Since his grandfather worked for a private company, he didn’t profit from his invention. “We ensure the inventor receives part of the royalties, too,” says Smith.
Inventions take three to five years to reach the market and produce sustaining revenue. New drugs can take up to 10 years, due to the regulatory process.
Recent UA inventions marketed through TLA include a new drug to treat cancer in dogs, licensed to Anivive Lifesciences. A new biopsy needle that will enable doctors to perform less invasive procedures is also in development.
Former UA College of Pharmacy scientist Kevin Boesen created SinfoniaRx, a company that’s commercializing a medication management system to track drug interactions. “He left the UA to lead the new company,” says Paul Tumarkin, senior marketing manager for TLA. “One of their biggest clients is Wal-Mart.” Working with health care providers and big pharmacies, SinfoniaRX’s vast database alerts clients to possible adverse consequences for patients taking multiple drugs prescribed by different physicians. The company has also provided jobs for UA College of Pharmacy students and graduates, who answer questions about drug interactions.
Bringing jobs to Tucson is another goal for TLA, says Smith. Formerly a tour guide for Birthright Israel, he returned to Israel in 2015 to talk with representatives of Israeli high-tech companies about TLA and Tucson’s UA Tech Parks, whose culture of innovation attracts technical companies nationwide and beyond. “A lot of my friends have left Tucson,” he says. “We’re excited to be part of an ecosystem that makes Tucson attractive.”
“We serve as a bridge for the business community to connect with the university,” says Tumarkin, a Tucson native and member of Congregation Chaverim. “It’s a great privilege to have a hand in bringing these inventions out into the world where they can make people’s lives better.”
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Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.