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Turning Brainstorms
into Businesses

After six years, the Miller School’s innovation engine is gaining traction and becoming a major player in Miami’s entrepreneurial climate

“Ibegin with an idea,” said Pablo Picasso, “and then it becomes something else.”

There is no shortage of bright ideas at the Miller School of Medicine — indeed, across all of the University of Miami — but turning them into that “something else” can be the hard part.

“Our faculty includes many of the world’s brightest academicians,” said Norma Sue Kenyon, Ph.D., UM’s vice provost for innovation and the Miller School’s chief innovation officer, “but that may not give them the skills to turn their concepts into commercial businesses. Entrepreneurship, like biomedical research, often requires a team approach to achieve transformational benefits.”

Dr. Kenyon oversees U Innovation, which puts those teams together.

“Our focus is on identifying the most promising technologies and, through the Wallace H. Coulter Center for Translational Research, putting business development support and funding around them,” Dr. Kenyon said. “We have the infrastructure in place to take research projects out of the university and bring them to market.”

The Office of Technology Transfer reviews invention disclosures, assesses commercial potential and, if a technology is successful in moving toward commercialization, crafts the necessary licensing agreements. To date, the Coulter Center has invested $4.5 million in 47 projects, which in turn have brought in more than $280 million in follow-on funding, with over $221 million being private dollars and over $42 million in government small business grants. The number of licensing agreements has grown to over 30 per year.

Key to the U Innovation infrastructure is the Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program, which pairs faculty inventors with business executives who have related experience. Typically, the faculty member and the business- side leader each take a stock position in the start-up company, which licenses the intellectual property from UM. The licensing arrangement has to make sense for the company as well as for the University.

“Our focus is on long-term returns on investment,” Dr. Kenyon said. “It works better for everybody involved and enables both sides to construct a deal with the maximum value added.”

The Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program has been instrumental in getting several start-ups off the ground. Among them is Fort Lauderdale-based Vigilant Biosciences, which has developed point-of-care tests for oral and oropharyngeal cancer. While the patented technology continues to be studied at multiple sites in the United States, Vigilant’s OncAlert Oral Cancer Tests are already being marketed outside the country.

Elizabeth Franzmann, M.D., the company’s scientific founder and chief scientific officer, conducted the related clinical research at the Miller School, where she is associate professor of otolaryngology.

“We found that a molecule called CD44 is secreted by cancer cells, and we wondered if it could be used to aid in the diagnosis of oral and head and neck cancers,” she explained.

“Entrepreneurship, like biomedical research, often requires a team approach.”
— Norma Sue Kenyon, Ph.D.

Her research team produced a salivabased test that can determine the presence of CD44, allowing for early detection and intervention. Currently, the vast majority of patients are either diagnosed through a visual exam or are already symptomatic, at which point they are likely to have a latestage cancer. Oral cancer results in more than 10,000 deaths in the United States every year. Early detection, however, may yield five-year survival rates of 80% to 90%.

“Dr. Kenyon’s team has been incredibly supportive,” Dr. Franzmann said. “They connected us with the founder of Vigilant, Matthew H. J. Kim, whose parents are both oral cancer survivors.”

Another beneficiary is Aegle Therapeutics, a biotech company headquartered, like U Innovation, in the Converge Miami facility on the northeast corner of the Miami Health District. Aegle (AY-glee) founder and chief scientific officer Evangelos Badiavas, Ph.D., M.D., is a dermatologist at the Miller School, where he has conducted groundbreaking research involving bone marrow stem cells to treat burns, wounds and epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a rare pediatric connective tissue disorder.

“We’ve been able to show that stem cells can help repair skin,” Dr. Badiavas said, “and we saw that as a great therapeutic opportunity.”

At that point, Dr. Badiavas connected with U Innovation. Initially, Dr. Kenyon paired him with Bob Williamson, M.B.A., a serial entrepreneur with experience founding, managing or funding more than 30 start-ups.

“He helped us form the company in 2013, which included obtaining patent approvals and the licensing agreement with the University,” Dr. Badiavas said.

A year later, Shelley Hartman — another Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program member and former CEO of medical device maker LifeSync Corp. — was brought in as CEO of Aegle.

In May, Aegle received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to conduct phase 1 clinical trials on burn patients and children with EB. The company hopes to begin the trials early next year.

While Aegle and Vigilant are examples of commercializing existing research, Dr. Kenyon is also interested in flipping that script.

“We want to find companies that need solutions and match them up with our capabilities,” she said. “That’s where our innovation comes from.”

A number of both UM-driven and independent networking and collaboration events and initiatives are helping Dr. Kenyon position U Innovation as the go-to source for solution seekers:

• The Venture Café, which meets every Thursday evening at Converge Miami, attracts hundreds of innovators, giving them the opportunity to participate in both high- impact programming and informal conversation.

• Launch Pad Med, a new medical campus outgrowth of the popular Coral Gables program, offers would-be entrepreneurs one-on-one consulting, mentorship programs, comprehensive workshops, free co-working space and a resource library.

• The Cane Angel Network, launched this year with partial funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, connects alumni, faculty, staff, parents and other UM-affiliated investors with promising UMaffiliated companies.

“We are starting to see venture capitalists take an active interest in UM, but it has taken six years,” Dr. Kenyon said. “The whole innovation ecosystem in Miami is finally emerging and getting traction.”

In fact, she said, Miami just knocked off New York City as the No. 1 city for small business growth, according to Biz2Credit’s annual rankings. The goal is for UM to be the hub of a whole innovation district, but the key challenges — investment opportunities and talent — remain.

“Still, we have come a long way,” Dr. Kenyon said, “and the Miller School, which is the source of the majority of our initiatives, is the crown jewel.”

FALL 2019