Matching grad student skills with regional business needs

A group of students works together on a project

Business development, market research, product improvement—these are all top-of-mind for small- and medium-sized businesses looking to grow. And for a few of these businesses, they’re also where teams of University of Minnesota graduate students are lending a hand.

The Economic Development Fellows Consulting Program, sponsored by the Office of University Economic Development with support from the Graduate School, connects groups of four to five graduate student consultants with Minnesota companies looking to overcome business challenges.

Each group of students is led by an economic development fellow—a grad student who has already participated in the program as a consultant and will now help manage one of the projects, provide mentorship and facilitate communication between the students and their business clients. At the end of each eight- to 12-week project, the fellows report on the project’s economic impact, including how it has helped promote economic development.

For both the fellows and the student consultants, the EDF program provides valuable experience on navigating a business environment, understanding industry partners’ priorities and working in a consulting team—skills they that complement the in-depth learning they already hold within their field of study.

Shawna Persaud, lead economic development fellow and pharmacology Ph.D. student at the U’s Medical School, said the EDF program gives her a unique opportunity to develop project management and leadership skills while solving pressing business problems.

“The exposure to diverse businesses here in the Twin Cities has been a valuable experience and helped me refine my career goals,” Persaud said. “Knowing that I’ve been able to contribute and provide value to our clients while gaining professional experience has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the program.”

A Star Tribune article recently noted EDF consultants’ work with Minneapolis-based startup Aucta Technologies, which is developing noninvasive nerve stimulation technology to help regulate appetite or treat inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. The student consultants assisting Aucta are building a business plan, sizing up the market, and conducting intellectual property research for the nerve stimulation technology to help pave its path to market.

The Aucta partnership is one of the five projects in the program this semester.

Gaining momentum

The EDF program, currently in its fourth project cycle, has quickly hit its stride, and it shows no signs of slowing. The Graduate School recently joined in supporting the program, helping spread the word about it to students, staff and faculty around the University. The results have been substantial—nearly 100 grad students showed up for the kickoff event to learn about the most recent EDF program cycle, with more than 60 of them submitting applications to participate.

“We’ve had more applicants than we’ve ever received before; it’s exciting to see students show such high interest in gaining practical business experience,” said Tim Tripp, UED’s assistant director. “We have also seen businesses benefit from the recommendations student consultants provide to them, in some cases even through a boost in revenue.”

Going forward, Tripp said the EDF program is ready to grow. He plans to reach out to chambers of commerce, venture capital firms and other organizations to recruit more proposals for business projects. And, while the program has already partnered with businesses in areas such as St. Cloud, MN, and Goodhue, MN, Tripp hopes to expand its reaches further outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area and across the state.

“We’re hoping to expand this program and continue the fruitful partnership between the University community and Minnesota businesses,” he said.

Participate in the program

The Economic Development Fellows Consulting Program will recruit the next round of volunteer consultants in May. Sign up for the email list to receive notifications or contact frontdoor@umn.edu with questions.

Companies interested in participating in the program are invited to submit a project proposal.

Bell Museum’s cooked wood highlights niche industry opportunity

Close-up of wooden planks

A few years ago, architecture firm Perkins+Will came to a conclusion while drawing plans for the new Bell Museum of Natural History and Planetarium on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus: it was time to get cooking.

Now, following the architects’ design, workers are covering nearly half of the Bell’s exterior with Minnesota white pine that has been cooked in a giant kiln. The process, called thermal modification, is a chemical-free way to make wood more stable and water-resistant. Workers will finish installing the specialized wood in March, with the Bell Museum itself reopening in summer 2018.

The Bell project highlights an economic opportunity for Minnesota — and one where the Natural Resources Research Institute at the U of M Duluth plays a crucial role. Researchers involved in NRRI’s Wood Products and Bioeconomy initiative, which focuses on helping strengthen Minnesota’s forestry industry in an environmentally sound way, are leading research into the field of thermally modified wood. Continue reading

Bringing new drug therapies to life

A variety of pills

When the prescription drug abacavir, developed in University of Minnesota labs by Robert Vince, Ph.D., gained federal approval in 1998 and appeared on pharmacy shelves under the brand name Ziagen, it gave new hope to those with HIV. Today, the 1.2 million people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates live with HIV nationwide have access to this treatment.

Bringing a breakthrough treatment like abacavir to the people who need it takes more than a groundbreaking scientific discovery — researchers must also work to refine their new treatments, bring them through clinical trials and help them reach the market.

Today, the Institute for Therapeutics Discovery and Development (ITDD), founded by the  U’s College of Pharmacy in 2007, provides the expertise and instrumentation researchers need to bridge the gap between a compelling pharmaceutical idea and a market-ready drug treatment. The institute is a resource for the over 1000 biomedical researchers at the U of M and Mayo Clinic whose work may lead to the next breakthrough drug therapies. Continue reading

ApoGen receives $7 million investment for cancer therapy

Researcher in a lab

A University of Minnesota startup recently attracted a major investment to support continued development of drug therapies that make cancer treatments more effective.

ApoGen Biotechnologies Inc., launched in October 2014, announced last month that it had received $7 million from life science investment firm Accelerator Corporation to continue developing a new class of drugs that slows the evolution of cancer cells and to move these treatments toward clinical trials. ApoGen is based on discoveries by two U researchers: Reuben Harris, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics; and Daniel Harki, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicinal chemistry. John Santini Jr., Ph.D., is the company’s president and CEO.

Cancer therapies often become less effective over time as cancer cells become resistant to treatment. ApoGen’s drugs are designed to block a key enzyme that causes drug resistance, potentially making current and future treatments more effective. Continue reading

Expanding the window for life-saving medical treatment

Rear view of paramedic's jacket

After a traumatic injury, every second counts. Whether wounded on the battlefield or hurt in a car crash, someone who has been severely injured needs to reach a hospital as soon as possible. But the farther away they are from one, the harder it is for first responders to get them there within the “golden hour” — the short window of time when life-saving medical treatments are most likely to succeed.

A drug therapy developed by three University of Minnesota researchers could extend this window, giving patients more time to reach the emergency room. The treatment, called BHB/M, is designed to be delivered by IV into the veins of someone suffering from hemorrhagic shock — when the body loses a severe and potentially fatal amount of blood — to help stop their organs from shutting down. Each year, between 300,000 and 400,000 people in the U.S. suffer from hemorrhagic shock. Greg Beilman, M.D., professor of surgery with the U of M Medical School and one of the BHB/M researchers, estimates that 45,000 to 60,000 of those people die from their severe blood loss.

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Applying for federal funding to help commercialize discoveries

Image of a woman signing forms

Each year, the federal government offers about $2.5 billion in funding to help small businesses bring new innovations to market — including those originating from public research institutions like the University of Minnesota. The complex applications for such funding, however, can be challenging to understand and to navigate.

The MN-SBIR program aims to shed light on the process. The program assists seed, early stage, emerging and existing firms of up to 500 employees in accessing federal funding through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. The office provides confidential, one-on-one guidance and advice in business development and technology commercialization to help those applying for SBIR or STTR grants or contract.  For University researchers, these funding sources can provide much needed funds to help bring cutting-edge discoveries beyond the lab and toward commercialization.

“SBIR and STTR funding supports research and development in science and technology across the spectrum of disciplines,” said Pat Dillon, director of MN-SBIR. “These federal funding sources, often in addition to angel investment or venture capital, but not necessarily, will help startups and small businesses continue to develop the technology and move it towards commercialization.” Continue reading

Patent roll call, fall 2016

Lightbulb drawing

Filing for a patent on a research discovery is more than just a way to protect the intellectual property behind it. Patents are often a crucial step toward moving breakthroughs beyond the lab and into the market, where they can benefit society.

Congratulations to the U of M researchers who were recently awarded patents for their discoveries. To learn more about reporting an invention, contact the Office for Technology Commercialization at 612-624-0550 or umotc@umn.edu. Continue reading

Cancer treatment startup based on U research wins Tekne Award

Tekne Award

A startup company that develops next-generation cancer treatments based on University of Minnesota research has been awarded for its innovative therapies.

GeneSegues Therapeutics received the Minnesota High Tech Association’s Tekne Award Wednesday night in the category of Health Care — Small and Growing. Tekne Awards recognize innovation across Minnesota in industries ranging from advanced manufacturing, health care and agricultural technology.

GeneSegues develops microscopic capsules that serve as a vessel to transport gene therapies through the body that help stop the spread of cancer. The capsules are smaller than conventional nanoparticles, allowing them to slip past the human body’s biological barriers and attack cancerous cells more precisely, while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

The company grew out of research done by U of M post-doc Gretchen Unger, Ph.D., in the early 2000s. Unger is currently chief scientific officer with the company. The company’s CEO is Laura Brod, who is also an at-large member of the University’s Board of Regents.

Turning sugar into plastics, polyesters – and new industries

Kechun Zhang

With the world hungry for more and better nutrients, antibiotics, plastics and other materials, a cheap and sustainable source must be found. Enter Kechun Zhang, who works with the most abundant of all: sugar.

“Sugar is the basis of life,” explains Zhang, a 2015-17 McKnight Land Grant Professor in the College of Science and Engineering’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS). “Everything is made of sugar or sugar-derived materials. Plants turn carbon dioxide into sugar, and it’s fed into all of life, including the cellulose in plant cell walls and the starches in seeds.”

Zhang and his colleagues—notably Regents Professor Frank Bates and chemistry professor Mark Hillmyer—have used various sugars as feedstocks to produce the building blocks of plastics, elastic materials (including spandex) and other products. This year, the three researchers founded the company Valerian Materials to manufacture the building blocks (monomers) of high-performance, biodegradable plastics and other polymers from renewable stocks instead of petroleum. Continue reading

Glial cells: guardians of brain activity

Gilal cells

After a stroke, blood flow through capillaries is hard to restore, even when the blood clot is removed. In Alzheimer’s disease, blood flow to some brain areas is compromised. In diabetic retinopathy, diabetes patients’ retinas deteriorate. The problem may be a compromised blood supply that can’t meet the demands of neurons.

In all these conditions, neurons are starved for the oxygen and glucose they need to function properly. Normally, when neurons in the brain or retina are working and need extra nourishment, some type of signal prompts nearby blood vessels to dilate and let more blood through. Pinpointing the nature and origin of such signals is critical to finding treatments for conditions in which it is lost or weakened.

But the signals don’t necessarily pass directly from neurons to blood vessels. University of Minnesota researchers have shown that in the retina, cells called glia—Latin for “glue”—respond to neuronal activity by signaling capillaries within the retina to dilate, increasing capillary blood flow by up to 26 percent. Their report is a cover story for the Journal of Neuroscience.

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Why prostate cancer treatment falls short

A common treatment for prostate cancer targets only one type of cancer cell, leaving patients vulnerable to a second type that continues to multiply, according to work at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC).

“The problem is that some of the cancer cells are dependent on androgens–testosterone and other male hormones–and some cancer cells require estrogens,” says research leader Akhouri Sinha, a professor in the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, the Masonic Cancer Center, and the VAMC. “[A common treatment] is to drastically reduce the supply of androgens, but that leaves the estrogen-dependent cancer cells to grow and thrive.

“It’s like trying to shut off a river by damming only the main channel, while letting water in the side channels continue to flow.”

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Two U startups named among “Best University Startups 2016”

Sun shining over city street

Two University of Minnesota startups received national recognition today for their potential to create jobs, advance technology and meet societal challenges in industry and the environment.

Innotronics and Minnepura, both launched by the U’s Venture Center, were named among the 35 “Best University Startups 2016” by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), an association of university startup officers. The startups were chosen from a group of 200 submitted companies launched by universities across the U.S.

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