UMBC faculty win four new Maryland Innovation Initiative grants, bringing total MII awards to $2.4M

Tech transfer is growing rapidly at UMBC, fueled in part by the university’s notable success in securing Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII) grants designed to promote the commercialization of research.

“UMBC’s success in the MII program has been consistently growing over the course of the 3.5 years since the program started,” says Jennifer Hammaker, MII director at Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO). In that time, UMBC researchers have received $2.38 million to develop their ideas into commercial applications, with an impressive success rate of 50 percent (50 applications yielding 25 awards).

The MII program is a powerful collaboration between the state of Maryland and five Maryland institutions: Johns Hopkins University; University of Maryland, Baltimore; University of Maryland, College Park; Morgan State University and UMBC.  UMBC has one of the highest success rates for MII awards among these institutions. The most recent round of grants for UMBC includes projects in four distinct areas: interactive arts performances, biomedical technology, space weather forecasting, and biofuel production.

The Awards

Linda Dusman, professor of music, and Eric Smallwood, assistant professor of visual arts, will use their phase III award to scale up a prototype of their mobile app, Octava, to make it available to a larger slice of the public. Octava provides real-time program notes during performances such as classical music, dance, and theatre, offering audiences details about the artists and other information that can enrich their experience of the performance and, as Dusman put it, “do real-time education.”

Previous MII grants helped Dusman and Smallwood generate the prototype and conduct a market research study. The phase III grant will enable the team to respond to feedback from phase II, including connecting the app to social media.

Chris Geddes, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of the Institute of Fluorescence, won a phase III award in this round for Lyse-it, a company that produces a low-cost portable device that breaks open cells and chops up their DNA to prescribed fragment sizes, a step required in many sample-preparation procedures in the biomedical research and health care industries. The phase III funding will facilitate production of a large inventory of the Lyse-it product and support development of a rapid marketing strategy.

Neel Savani, a researcher at UMBC’s Goddard Planetary Heliophysics Institute (GPHI), is developing a system that can forecast solar storms up to 24 hours in advance, a huge improvement over the current ability to give a one-hour warning. His team’s phase I MII grant will allow them to “get a handle and statistical understanding of how good of an improvement this forecast will be,” Savani explains, “If I can validate how much the improvement will be, then I can convert that into a sales pitch.”

“It’s great to see the state of MD take the lead in supporting space technology,” Savani adds, “I’m seeing venture capitalists looking to invest in the space industry.”

Jeffrey Gardner, assistant professor of biological sciences, received a phase I award for a technology that will support the biofuels industry. His group “will develop a set of small porous filters that enables real-time measurement of microbial growth during biofuel production,” he explains. Bacterial cells used for biofuel production break down large molecules to obtain nutrients, and then use those nutrients to either grow more cells or produce biofuel. By measuring how many cells are growing in real time, researchers can tell if the bacterial cells are “spending more energy than they should making more cells instead of making biofuel.”

Learning Curve

The MII grant process can be a huge learning opportunity for research faculty, many of whom have never tackled a business venture. David Fink, a “site miner” at UMBC, seeks out faculty research that could lead to successful commercial products and supports faculty through the process from start to finish. Don Engel, assistant vice president for research, also encourages faculty to pursue commercialization when he thinks their work is a good fit.

Smallwood shares, “Dave [Fink] has been indispensable, helping us understand the program and shape our ideas.” As UMBC’s first MII team in the arts, and only the second team of artists to receive an MII grant, he says, “We were coming from a different field than most of the applicants, so we had to reorient our brains to how we navigate this new world.”

For Dusman, a business venture “is like an octopus.” She often finds herself asking, “What do you mean there’s one more leg?”

UMBC resources also aided Savani as he grew his business skills. “As somebody who comes from a very research-centric background, I don’t necessarily know the correct lingo for commercialization,” he admits, “That was a tricky component for me to learn, with a steep learning curve.” He thanks Fink and Engel, as well as Paola Buitron and Wendy Martin in UMBC’s Office of Technology Development and Margo Young at GPHI, for his success with the MII program. “They were an absolute tremendous help. They were very patient and supportive.”

“This program is asking questions of faculty that most of them have never been asked,” says Hammaker. “It’s forcing them to think differently.”

She credits UMBC’s success receiving a particularly large number of grants to a combination of support from high-level administrators as well as site miners like Fink. She cites Dusman and Smallwood as an example of what that kind of support makes possible. “They’re closing sales all over the country,” Hammaker says, “That doesn’t happen without a support system.”

Some companies formed by UMBC faculty, as well as alumni and university partners, choose to create a home base at bwtech@UMBC, adjacent to campus. Ellen Hemmerly, executive director of bwtech@UMBC, explains that the research and technology park “provides a range of incubator services to help the companies grow and be successful.”

Geddes, one of the phase III grant recipients, is a veteran entrepreneur attuned to the business landscape. “We are seeing an increased amount of funding available to faculty to explore their ideas and inventions with regard to commercialization,” he says, “With more funding and opportunities materializing, we should expect to see many more companies being spun out from UMBC in the coming years.”

That fits with the culture of UMBC, says Karl V. Steiner, vice president for research. “When we talk about research at UMBC, we frequently use the phrase ‘Innovation that Matters’ to reflect the fact that many of our faculty and students are working on our current, most pressing issues,” he shares. “Our success with the TEDCO MII program is rooted deeply in this research culture of making a difference.”

Hammaker sees UMBC as an exemplar in this regard: “Exactly what’s happening at UMBC is what we’re looking for. UMBC is doing a great job of working with the faculty and getting them prepared to come through the program.” She says, “UMBC has a lot to be excited about.”

Image: Colleagues gather to sign UMBC technology patents into the new Lyse-it company. From left to right: Paola Buitron, Mildred Homa, Wendy Martin, Chris Geddes, Russell Hill, Dean Drake, Rosemary Jagus, David Fink. Photo by Mary Larkin.