Norma Kenyon and her team are on a mission.
“When I became vice provost of innovation in 2012, the University of Miami did not have a robust history of commercialization,” said Kenyon, who is also chief innovation officer at the UM Miller School of Medicine, a veteran faculty member and a longtime diabetes researcher. “We had patents and technologies, but we did not have a focus on getting them to market. … We now have a renewed emphasis on commercialization and entrepreneurship, and while most of our technology is driven by the medical school, we are increasing our outreach to our other colleges.”
To that end, Kenyon leads U Innovation, which aims to nurture and commercialize University of Miami technologies to result in more patents, more licenses and, ultimately, more successful companies.
U Innovation consists of the Wallace H. Coulter Center for Translational Research (WHCC), focused on funding and support toward commercialization of promising biomedical research, as well as the university-wide Office of Technology Transfer, responsible for negotiating and executing agreements for commercialization of all UM intellectual property. U Innovation has an office at the UM Life Science and Technology Park.
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To rejuvenate and run the Tech Transfer office, Kenyon hired Jim O’Connell away from the University of Michigan in June of 2013 because of his expertise with business development, technology transfer and startups.
So far, the strategy is working: In the past two years, there has been a dramatic spike in the numbers of companies started as well as patents and licenses issued. Some of these companies are working on treatments for cancer, spinal cord injuries, kidney disease and asthma as well as early detection of head and neck cancer and heart disease.
The Miami Herald talked with Kenyon recently about U Innovation, trends she is seeing in the life science industry, and UM’s role in the South Florida entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Q. Tell us more about your mission in your role as vice provost of innovation.
A. In this role, my mission is to support our innovative faculty in the development of their ideas, discoveries and technologies toward commercialization, building the interactions, resources and entrepreneurial energy to capitalize on UM’s creative talent across our schools and colleges.
Q. What are your metrics for success?
A. Standard metrics include the annual number of invention disclosures, patents submitted and awarded, copyrights and trademarks, license agreements, startup companies. At the suggestion of Mike Davis, one of our licensing associates, we are setting up an "ideas portal," which would allow faculty to submit their ideas for discussion with the U Innovation team. Non-standard metrics would include the number of ideas submitted/year and identification and nurturing of those ideas that have commercial potential. As we grow the innovation ecosystem at UM, another metric will be an increased number of ideas and disclosures from across the university, as the majority of our IP [Intellectual Property] is currently biomedical.
Q. What progress has been made so far?
A. Over the last two years, the number of license agreements has increased, with 19 in FY 2013 and 26 in FY ’14. We have been covering our patent expenses and intellectual property revenues have grown. We have significantly more startups as well, in various stages of development, ranging from virtual to one that had a successful IPO in July of 2013.
I attribute our success to 1) bringing in individuals with the background to look at development of IP from a business perspective, 2) refocusing the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) on commercialization of technologies, following IP from invention disclosure through the various stages of patenting and making the difficult decisions not to pursue patents when commercial partners cannot be identified, 3) working with commercial partners to facilitate and streamline the process of licensing, 4) strengthening of the interaction between the WHCC and OTT to more fully support commercialization of our biomedical research, 5) the “Coulter process,” which provides a road map for development of technology toward commercialization, 6) a focus on customer service — we are here to support our innovators and 7) engagement of leadership and all of UM’s schools and colleges to identify next steps in the development of our innovation ecosystem, as well as involvement of business, law, communications and other students in U Innovation commercialization activities.
Q. What’s next? Are there any interesting projects on the horizon that you can talk about?
A. We need to significantly expand our outreach and role, at UM, in the local (South Florida) ecosystem and beyond. There is an interesting project on the horizon that could bring together some of our larger institutions in development of research towards commercialization. If successful, such a project would position us as a region to be considered for funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and other federal funding that requires “clusters” of innovation.
Q. How does the UM Life Science and Technology Park fit in to your mission and strategy?
A. The LSTP is the nexus for the commercialization of our technologies, providing an interface with the greater entrepreneurial community in Miami, the region, the U.S. and around the world. Wexford Science and Technology, our partner at LSTP, has connected UM to other Wexford parks around the country, joining forces to create an innovation ecosystem and providing information on entrepreneurial programs that have worked well. Both startups and mature companies are located at the park, thereby providing opportunities for educational and research collaborations.
Q. How many startups are you currently working with and can you tell me a little about a couple of them?
A. We are currently working with over 20 UM startups, ranging from very early stage to public. InflamaCORE is a company founded by scientists from the Departments of Physiology and Neurosurgery and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis — Drs. Robert Keane, Dalton Dietrich, Helen Bramlett and Juan Pablo De Rivero Vaccari — and focused on diagnosis of and novel treatment for different types of CNS injury, including stroke, brain trauma and spinal cord injury; this company was awarded an NIH small business award (an STTR) and is also funded by WHCC.
Vigilant Biosciences is based on the work of a UM head and neck surgeon, Dr. Elizabeth Franzmann, and is developing a low-cost kit for assessing a person’s risk of oral cancer before any lesions appear in the mouth; Vigilant has completed a $2million Series A round and also received a loan from the Florida Institute for Commercialization of Public Research. Even further along the spectrum is Heat Biologics, based on the pioneering lung cancer vaccine work of Dr. Eckhard Podack; Heat had a successful IPO in July of 2013.
Q. How have you approached finding “CEOs” for your new startup companies?
A. We have established a mechanism to on-board “Entrepreneurs in Residence” who work with our founding scientists to develop a business plan, consider next steps and move technology out of the U. These individuals are experienced business people and entrepreneurs who are interested in working with us and willing to donate their time. If the startup succeeds, they will benefit. If not, they still will have donated valuable time and energy to UM’s innovation efforts.
Q. What are some of the trends you are seeing in the projects and companies?
A. Trends include more activities around IT in the healthcare space, including programs for assessment of wellness, tools for patient education and mobile technologies for use by healthcare providers. More programs are arising that involve multiple institutions innovating together, providing funds for projects that include members from more than one university.
Q. How do you partner with the Florida Institute for Commercialization of Public Research to help these startups get funding?
A. The Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research has been an excellent partner for UM. We engage with our EIR [Entrepreneur in Residence], Alison Tanner, to discuss newly emerging companies that are based on UM IP and explore the possibility of FICPR funding. Alison talks with the founders and assists them with business advice and guidance through the steps required to be approved for a loan. To date, five of our UM startups have received dollars from the institute: Vigilant Biosciences, Biscayne Pharmaceuticals, Heart Genomics, Integene International Holdings and RxMP Therapeutics.
Q. Has UM thought about starting a fund or an incubator for these companies?
A. Yes, we are in active discussions with university leadership regarding a fund for our emerging companies. There are incubators and funding programs for tech-based startups in Miami now, but we lack a subsidized incubator/co-working laboratory space for early-stage biomedical startups in which the company can rent a bench or part of a bench and have access to shared resources — this is something that I am currently exploring. Companies that are a little more advanced in their funding have access to space in LSTP in the Innovation Center. We are proud to have a few UM spinouts and startups in the center, along with 35 other companies, ranging from early stage to mature.
Q. Finish this sentence: South Florida’s life sciences industry really needs…
A. … fundable management, i.e., experienced business people who are able to manage and attract funding, as well as capital.
Q. Do you collaborate with other South Florida or Florida universities to help propel the life sciences industry? If so, in what way, or what would you like to see?
A. Through the efforts of FIU, the Life Sciences South Florida initiative encompasses several universities and colleges, including UM, and engages in discussions and activities around education, economic development and other issues pertinent to the life sciences. Through our Clinical Translational Science Institute, we hold a research day called “CaneSearch” meant to bring together researchers from across the university; we also invite local institutions to participate. The theme for the 2015 event will be Translational Research, and speakers will include the director of the Division of Clinical Innovation in the NIH National Center for the Advancement of Translational Sciences, two industry speakers and one of our most successful entrepreneurs. Our UM Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute and FIU have started a joint funding program. More is needed and we will all benefit from collaboration.
I’d like to see more opportunities for funds at both the seed stage (e.g., to produce a device prototype) and further along the spectrum toward commercialization, similar to WHCC projects. With $2.9million for 34 funded projects, over $60million of follow-on dollars (business grants, angel investors, VC) has resulted from WHCC supported projects. Many of our UM startups have received WHCC funding and support. While UM has focused on biomedical projects, the Coulter process could be effectively applied to many types of technologies.
Q. Do you see South Florida becoming a healthcare innovation hub?
A. With over 3,300 hospital beds, more than 1.5million outpatient visits a year and several institutes that are thought leaders, the Miami Health District is a healthcare innovation hub. The infrastructure and talent are here but we need to market and leverage our institutions and capabilities to attract the right companies and investors.
We are seeing great movement in the tech sector and there is a buzz in South Florida, with eMerge Americas, tech incubators and companies founded here actually staying here. This same focused drive to create the environment for a tech hub needs to occur for the life sciences.
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Title: Vice provost of innovation, University of Miami; chief innovation officer, UM Miller School of Medicine; research scientist for Type 1 Diabetes.
Oversees: U Innovation, the home of technology advancement at the University of Miami that serves to bridge in-house laboratory research and companies, entrepreneurs and investors. The office is comprised of the Office of Technology Transfer and the Wallace H. Coulter Center for Translational Research.
Board appointments: NIH Council of Councils, BioFlorida, Life Sciences South Florida, Enterprise Development Corporation.
Education: Ph.D. in immunology, Medical College of Virginia; bachelor of science in zoology, Duke University.
Best advice received: From my father, “never give up, never give up, never give up!”