UF office serves as bridge from lab to market
Published: Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 at 9:27 p.m.
When Edward Bonfiglio was a U.S. Navy corpsman on patrol in Afghanistan in 2009, he was shot in the left leg, the bullet severing his sciatic nerve and leaving him with no sensation below the knee.
Doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., gave him two options — amputate the knee or try an experimental new procedure using a nerve graft from a cadaver. Bonfiglio elected to undergo the nerve graft.
Today, Bonfiglio is training for the Paralympics and attending Penn State. He was selected to ride in the American Association of Tissue Banks' Donate Life float in the 125th Rose Parade in Pasadena on Jan. 1, the organization announced this week.
The technology that saved Bonfiglio's leg was developed from a discovery made in a lab more than 20 years ago by University of Florida pediatrics and neuroscience professor David Muir and developed commercially by Alachua-based Axogen Inc.
That journey through the pipeline from research lab to market is one that has been made by hundreds of discoveries by UF scientists and faculty, aided by the Office of Technology Licensing.
"OTL is that link ... to take things out of labs and move them into the public sector, which is something guys like me are not aware of or good at, and it's scary," David Muir said. "I don't know how to invest money. I never had any."
Like the latticed framework that grafts donor nerves to host cells, the Office of Technology Licensing binds UF's intellectual property to startup entrepreneurs and investors who are able to turn that research into prototypes that can be tried and tested and federally approved for public consumption.
Housed in the Innovation Hub along with two dozen startup companies, law firms, financial advisers and venture capital firms, the Office of Technology Licensing is able to match those discoveries with the team of entrepreneurs and investors looking for the next big thing.
"The prestige of the Innovation Hub and the results it has made in the marketplace are now attracting top venture capitalist firms from around the country," said Jon Spence, a Gainesville business consultant, investor and adviser to the University of Florida's Leadership Development Institute.
The University of Florida does as well or better than most universities in converting discoveries into technology, according to several measures tracked by the Association of University Technology Managers. In its annual survey of almost 200 universities, hospitals and research institutions, the Association of University Technology Managers reported that university and research institute licensing and startup activity remains strong, along with robust research expenditures.
The association doesn't rank the universities and research institutions that participate in the survey, said Jodi Talley, director of marketing and communications, because every academic institution is different, from its mission to its student body to its location.
"It's not encouraged because you're comparing apples to oranges," she said.
But the information can help a university draw its own conclusions about how it's performing and what progress it is making compared with its peers and other institutions, said Jane Muir, the associate director of UF's Office of Licensing Technology and the wife of David Muir.
UF appears to be in good company among other top research institutions. UF tied with Columbia for fourth place with 15 startups in 2012. MIT placed third with 16; the University of Texas system was second with 22; and the University of California system led the pack with 55 startups.
"If you look at startups and who's ahead of us, that's pretty amazing," Jane Muir said. She said MIT and Columbia have advantages in resources and location over UF.
Last year was a record number for UF, she said. For the past decade, the university had averaged around 12 startups a year, she said. For the 2013 fiscal year ending June 30, UF helped create another 15 startups.
Startups are a good measure of a university's contribution to the economy, said David L. Day, Office of Technology Licensing director. The Office of Technology Licensing helped start more than 140 biomedical and technology companies on the back of UF-sponsored research, he said.
Another measurement of the university's strength is the number of licenses and options issued. UF has had nearly 700 active licenses since the program started in 1983. In 2012, UF granted 129 licenses and options. Only 10 institutions granted more.
Those numbers show that investors believe the invention or technology spawned by the university has commercial applications, Day said.
"University research has become an important driver of economic development," Day said.
Another measure is how much universities earn off those inventions. Total income from university inventions in the U.S. in 2012 was $2.6 billion off of $63.7 billion in sponsored research expenditures, the AUTM reported.
UF earned $34 million from licensing, options and royalties in 2012, a little more than a third of its total earnings of $91 million from 2010-12, and spent $572.7 million on research expenditures. Nineteen universities, hospitals and research institutions earned more in 2012.
In 2006, when the Milken Institute ranked UF the top public institution in technology transfer, and fifth overall, its revenues were $43 million. One year, UF had $53 million in revenue, before the glaucoma drug Trusopt's patent expired.
Earnings off royalties are trailing indicators, Day said, because of how long it can take for a company to see a return on its investment.
A recent study by the Chronicle of Higher Education tried to give those numbers some perspective by crunching earnings and research expenditures from 1991 to 2011 provided to the Association of University Technology Managers. The Chronicle's report showed that UF ranked 13th — earning $77,425 per $1 million spent, with a 20-year average annual research expenditure of $340 million. Florida State University was ranked seventh, with $131,847 earned for every $1 million spent.
David Muir was a post-doctoral fellow in the 1980s when he discovered nerves had a way to promote growth, and that certain molecules inhibit that growth.
"My discovery was that if you remove a certain inhibitor, the nerve regrows better," he said. Another 15 to 20 years ensued discovering what that molecule was, finding a way to remove it and showing that it produced a beneficial effect.
The Office of Technology Licensing saw the potential for his discovery and filed the patent application. Jamie Groomes, Axogen's founder, saw the potential for Muir's discovery and pulled together investors and entrepreneurs to put together a business plan.
"The OTL provides all that expertise — how to ...begin with the discovery, to put it on the map as university property and to decide whether it's worth patenting or not," David Muir said.
Universities are recognizing it's OK to aggressively market and commercialize scientific discoveries, he said. "I used to think it was going to the dark side to get involved in commercialization, but now it's the light side, and OTL has changed that," David Muir said.
Axogen is still a year or two away from breaking even, David Muir said. When it does see a profit, UF through its royalty agreement will get a percentage, usually in the single digits, Jane Muir said. That money is distributed to the Office of Technology Licensing, the Research Foundation and the inventor.
"Everybody gets a little bit of that distribution," David Muir said. "It's a nice Christmas fund."