University creates company to tap into inventive genius

Where would you go to invest in a one-handed syringe that would allow a field medic to more easily treat a wound? How about a next-generation Gatorade-like drink that helps athletes absorb fluids faster and retain them longer?

The Billings Gazette

You could go to the University of New Mexico, which created a small nonprofit company in 1996 in hopes that inventions like these will one day become useful products.

The intent of Science and Technology Corp. is to tap into the inventive genius of UNM faculty members and find ways to market good ideas.

STC’s Web site lists 161 patents for inventions spawned in UNM labs. They range from medical research techniques to innovative methods for making computer chips.

“The ultimate goal is to commercialize research for the public benefit,” said Lisa Kuuttila, STC’s president and CEO. Kuuttila was hired in June to head STC’s 10-member staff. She previously had a similar job at Purdue University in Indiana.

“The more tangible side of our goal is to generate income that can be used by the university for research and education,” Kuuttila said.

STC claims some successes that one day could give UNM part-ownership of valuable products, Kuuttila and others say. But so far, STC has not been a money-maker for UNM.

STC applies for patents on UNM inventions and seeks companies interested in using the patents to develop products. It receives some royalties from the patents but not much, according to its most recent tax filing.

The nonprofit firm earned $99,870 in royalty income in the year ending June 30, 2001, according to its tax form.

Overall, STC reported income of $3.45 million and expenses of $3.67 million that year. UNM subsidizes STC’s losses, Kuuttila said. STC owns an equity stake in eight companies, including Zia Laser Inc., a spinoff of UNM’s Center for High Technology Materials.

Zia licensed STC-owned patents in 2001 to manufacture quantum-dot lasers with potential uses in telecommunications and medical equipment, said Luke Lester, a UNM professor and a co-founder of Zia.

In return, Lester said, UNM owns about 1 percent equity in Zia.

STC listed the value of its stock assets at $16,358 as of June 30, 2001. Zia Laser stock was its most valuable holding, at $14,720.

Kuuttila said none of the companies in STC’s portfolio has offered its stock for sale to the public, which makes it difficult to assess the stock’s value.

UNM this summer used revenue bonds to buy STC’s building and parking structure at 801 University SE for $10.6 million. The move was intended to get STC out of the business of managing real estate and to let it focus on its mission of managing UNM’s intellectual property, said Kim Murphy, UNM’s real estate director.

UNM also ended its $1.2 million annual rent payments to STC and will instead fund STC directly, he said. Kuuttila said she is optimistic that STC will play an important role in UNM’s future.

The university got a late start in the business of commercializing technology, she said. The University of Arizona started its technology-transfer company in 1988; the University of Colorado’s started in 1993.

The process of turning university research into useful products is notoriously slow, according to Gary Douglas, STC’s director of life sciences.

“Any university technology is at such an early stage that a company has to pump a lot of money and time into it to develop anything resembling a product,” Douglas said.

STC officials point to some successes they say hold promise of future profits.

Last year, STC launched its first startup venture, a computer software firm, Concise Logic. STC wrote a business plan, recruited a management team and sought private seed money for the venture.

Ed Cantrall, chairman of STC’s board of directors, said the nonprofit company also helps broker agreements between faculty and companies that can provide money and technical expertise for UNM research.

“What I’m talking about is setting up relationships between corporate entities and faculty entrepreneurs,” Cantrall said.

UNM announced just such an agreement in June.

The Health Sciences Center struck a deal with Chemical Diversity Labs Inc. of San Diego that researchers say could help establish a biotechnology industry in New Mexico.

Larry Sklar, director of basic research at the UNM Cancer Research and Treatment Center, said his lab will test chemical compounds for the firm. The work is intended to lay the groundwork for new cancer-fighting drugs.

The agreement will give UNM researchers access to Chemical Diversity’s vast library of chemical compounds, Sklar said. In return, UNM and the firm will share ownership of any promising work that emerges from the research.

STC owns the patent on Sklar’s laboratory techniques and helped the center develop a business plan, he said.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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