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Seed money

With UM System funding, new biotech firms take root in Columbia

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Feb. 27, 2012
Enterprise Investment Program winners

Luis Jimenez, chief executive officer of EternoGen, speaks with team members Rebecca Rone (left) and Sheila and Dave Grant. EternoGen, a company that has created a long-lasting collagen skin filler, will receive up to $200,000 from university Enterprise Investment Program (EIP) funding. Mark Lee, also an EIP recipient, speaks with a member of the media in the background.

In the face of proposed budget cuts, the University of Missouri System is taking a do-it-yourself approach to statewide economic recovery.

The tactic is entrepreneurial and pragmatic. Short on jobs? Make some. Seeking scientific breakthroughs? Support research. Need a way to convert ideas and talents — the melding of Missouri’s great minds — into marketable products that can improve lives? Make an investment.

Buoying both the economy and the academy, the UM System’s Enterprise Investment Program, a funding source for Missouri high-tech startup companies, is contributing to two new ventures conceived at MU.

System leaders have announced EIP awards of up to $400,000 for HLB Horizons, a nanotechnology company that manufactures chemical compounds used in semiconductors and rechargeable batteries, and up to $200,000 for EternoGen, a medical-device company that produces a long-lasting biological collagen scaffold used as a soft-tissue filler. EIP also helped procure for EternoGen an additional $100,000 from Missouri IDEA Funds and $200,000 from Centennial Investors, a Columbia-based angel investment network. 

UM System President Tim Wolfe says he expects the startups to “blossom into billion-dollar enterprises” and generate 175 jobs in mid-Missouri over the next five years.

 “It is a clear path toward the creation of jobs,” Wolfe says. “Creation of jobs drives the economy. The economy drives taxpayer dollars, which is further invested in higher education, K-12 and all the wonderful programs that we have in the state of Missouri.”

Acting locally

Both companies were founded by MU researchers and are housed at the MU research park in Columbia. HLB Horizons grew out of MU’s International Institute for Nano and Molecular Medicine, a state-of-the-art nanotechnology facility directed by National Academy of Sciences member Fred Hawthorne. EternoGen, now located at MU’s Life Science Incubator, originated with the MU Biodesign and Innovation Program, a collaboration joining MU’s School of Medicine and its College of Engineering.

Both remain rooted in Columbia.

HLB President and CEO Mark Lee says his team has been approached by venture capital firms but that accepting offers from such investors would mean manufacturing the products abroad.

“Invariably if we were to pursue traditional startup funding routes, this technology would be commercialized offshore, almost certainly not in mid-Missouri,” says Lee, an MU assistant professor of chemistry who founded HLB with Hawthorne and MU radiology research professor Satish Jalisatgi, the current interim assistant director of the institute. “Our company is swimming counter-current in many ways.”  

EternoGen CEO Luis Jimenez, an MU Crosby MBA program graduate, says his firm is a direct product of the multidisciplinary collaborative opportunities Mizzou offers.

“It takes a team with multifunctional skills to achieve this objective,” says Jimenez, who leads the company with Chief Operations Officer Ron Bassuner, a geneticist, and Chief Scientific Officer Rebecca Rone, an MU engineering alumna. “Seek collaboration, share your knowledge, and allow your technologies to transform the world.”  

Thinking globally

Mark Lee

MU chemistry professor Mark Lee is the president and CEO of HLB Horizons, one of two startup companies chosen to receive funds from the Enterprise Investment program. Lee created the nanotechnology company with Fred Hawthorne and Satish Jalisatgi, the director and interim assistant director of the International Institute of Nano and Molecular Medicine.

The effects of the fledgling businesses are expected to extend beyond Missouri – and beyond dollars and cents. The technologies have applications in human health, energy consumption and environmental safety — and have the potential to elevate the quality of life for people around the world.

HLB Horizons has developed a safer, cheaper, more environmentally responsible way to produce chemical compounds containing boron. Techniques previously employed in the field entailed the use of pricey materials, including a gas that’s both highly toxic and explosive. A byproduct of HLB’s method, in contrast, is sodium chloride, aka table salt.

HLB’s chemical compounds currently can be used for the manufacturing of semiconductors and large-scale lithium batteries. Potential future applications include national defense, high-performance polymers and multiple medical uses, including cancer treatment through boron neutron capture therapy

Already entering the medical market, EternoGen uses nanotechnology and protein engineering to make its collagen skin filler. The dermatological and reconstructive product is being tested for use in burn treatment, combat wound treatment and orthopedic reconstruction, as well as for cosmetic applications. Creators say the filler lasts longer than its predecessors, stimulates tissue regeneration and has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.  

Building incentive

The union of academic research and product commercialization is fraught with complications, but two major policy developments are smoothing out the bumps.

UM System students now can keep ownership of intellectual property rights for inventions they develop on campus — a nearly unprecedented policy intended to attract and retain innovative students.

A second development, changes to state legislation known as the Sunshine Law, would protect the privacy of proprietary information and intellectual property related to inventions conceived at universities, allowing creators to engage in product development and commercialization deals without having to disclose details to potential competitors. This change enables public university researchers to compete for investors and partners with their peers at private universities, who aren't subject to Sunshine Law restrictions.

Investing in the future

Plans for HLB Horizons and EternoGen were among 16 proposals submitted to EIP's review board for funding consideration more than a year ago. Applications will be accepted for the next round of funding beginning March 1.

Mike Nichols, vice president for research and economic development, says system leaders expect the UM System's startup support to inspire outside funders.

“We are not looking for a return on investment so much as a return of our investment,” Nichols says. 

MU Chancellor Brady Deaton notes that the EIP is part of a larger collection of economic-development initiatives that have led to the Kauffman Foundation's recognition of the UM System among the nation's top commercialization universities.

Since fiscal year 2008, MU has filed 278 U.S. patents and signed 204 options and licenses for new technologies developed at the university. This represents a six-fold increase in deals to commercialize faculty innovations compared to fiscal years 2004-07. Companies that have licensed products invented by MU scientists have received about $1 billion in sales revenues.

“In spite of the challenge of our budget and state funding," Deaton says, "you cannot look at this enterprise without being just terribly optimistic about the future.”

Read more in:  On CampusBeyond CampusHealth & MedicineBusiness, Law & PoliticsAgriculture & the EnvironmentScience & TechnologyFamily & Community

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Last updated: Feb. 29, 2012