University of Connecticut University of UC Title Fallback Connecticut

April, 2017

UConn TIP startup Azitra closes $2.9M Series A for microbiome work

Published on Fierce Biotech / April 5, 2017

Ben Adams

Azitra has also received funding from the NIH and Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs.

Preclinical company Azitra has raised a small bag of cash in its Series A round as it looks to further its work using the skin’s own microbiome for new treatments in dermatology and skin infections.

The three-year-old Farmington, Connecticut-based biotech today closed a $2.9 million venture round led by Bios Partners, which brings its total amount of outside funding to $3.75 million.

Previous seed funding sources include Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs program that supports startups, alongside other nondilutive grants, including from the National Institutes of Health.

Azitra’s lead candidate, AZT-01, is a recombinant strain of a safe skin bacterium that secretes therapeutic proteins locally into the skin.

The big idea is that these bacteria, when applied topically on the skin, can colonize the skin and restore the microbiome, all the while treating the skin condition with therapeutic proteins.

Azitra says that the funding will allow it to push on with work for its platform across a variety of skin conditions, including eczema, atopic dermatitis, MRSA, rare genetic skin diseases and cosmetic applications.

“The current approach of only addressing a disease’s symptoms alone is ineffective, and the microbiome is a nascent area of ground-breaking science that has enormous potential,” said Azitra co-founder Travis Whitfill.

“That’s why we were passionate about launching a commercial organization that harnesses the power of the skin’s own microbiome to develop a new kind of dermatology treatment. Such treatments are potentially safer, more highly targeted, and work better with fewer side effects than what’s currently available for often intractable conditions.”

The closing of its Series A comes on the same day that another microbiome biotech, Finch Therapeutics, penned a new deal with Takeda for research on FIN-524, a microbial cocktail for inflammatory bowel disease.

UCONN Research Innovation Newsletter – April

Published on The Hartford Courant / April 19th, 2017

Stephen Singer

The University of Connecticut is claiming bragging rights for significantly boosting investment in technology startup businesses fostered at its business incubation program.

Nearly three dozen companies, including a vaccine immunotherapy firm and a business developing a therapy to restore hearing drew nearly $40 million in investments last year, UConn said. That’s more than double the $14.6 million in investments in 2015 and up from more than $24 million, the previous record set in 2014, the university said.

“It’s a good return on state investment,” Jeff Seemann, vice president for research at UConn, said Tuesday. “The return on investment is growing and substantial.”

The growth follows state support of $20 million to double UConn’s capacity for business incubators, he said.

The nearly $40 million in investments represents a 63 percent return on the state investment of $20 million two years ago and $4.5 million in grants from foundations and other sources.

UConn’s Technology Incubation Program was established in 2004 to accelerate the growth of technology startups that are connected to the university. State officials, using the state venture capital firm Connecticut Innovations, and other incentives, are trying to promote growth in bioscience, software design and other technology businesses to create more high-paying jobs.

Connecticut is struggling to replace high-paying manufacturing jobs that increasingly have been replaced by less well-paying work.

The business incubator housed 33 companies at the end of last year, which has increased to 37 now, with another four under review, said Mostafa Analoui, executive director of venture development at UConn.

Businesses typically are offered a three-year contract, which is enough time for software companies, though drug development businesses may require more time, he said.

CaroGen Corp., a vaccine immunotherapy company, is benefiting from UConn’s business incubator. It has raised $2 million from investors and is trying to raise $10 million this year, said Chief Executive Officer Bijan Almassian.

Immunotherapies the company is developing have applications in infectious diseases and cancer, he said. They could treat chronic infections related to hepatitis B and immunotherapies being developed in collaboration with UConn professors could be used to treat colon cancer.

For CaroGen, which employs 10 workers, advantages of working in UConn’s business incubator include collaboration with faculty and access to costly equipment such as centrifuge microscopes that CaroGen could not afford on its own.

CaroGen has been at UConn’s business incubator for more than two years and Almassian said he hopes that with more funding the company can move to a larger space.

UConn’s Mostafa Analoui Joins Connecticut Innovations Board

Image

UConn’s Executive Director of Venture Development and the Technology Incubation Program, Dr. Mostafa Analoui, was recently appointed to the Connecticut Innovations Board of Directors by Governor Dannel P. Malloy

The University of Connecticut and Connecticut Innovations (CI), today announced that Mostafa Analoui, Ph.D. executive director of venture development at UConn, has been appointed to the CI Board of Directors by Governor Dannel P. Malloy. The 17-member board provides a strategic framework for CI initiatives and is responsible for CI finances, including investments and overall operations of the organization.

According to Board Chairman Michael Cantor, each board member brings vital experience that is tapped to inform and advise CI leadership on important issues that impact the success of the state’s strategic investment arm.

“Dr. Analoui has the distinction of bringing several key skills and expertise that align with CI customers and partners,” said Cantor. “Having been a successful startup founder, an academic entrepreneur, a corporate R&D leader and most recently an investment manager, he can offer perspective on a range of issues of importance to CI.”

Connecticut Innovations’ Board of Directors is responsible for developing the overall strategic framework from which the organization creates policies and initiatives to help it succeed. The board is responsible for adopting an annual plan of operation and budget, overseeing the organization’s financial activities, including its investments, and overall governance of Connecticut Innovations.

The board is composed of nine members appointed by the governor and four appointed by the leadership of the General Assembly, as well as four ex-officio members who serve by virtue of their positions with the state: the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, the president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, the state treasurer, and the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management.

Analoui joined UConn in 2016 as executive director of venture development, a new positioned created to help faculty and student entrepreneurs launch and grow new technology companies.

According to UConn/UConn Health vice president for research Jeff Seemann, Ph.D., the university is committed to advancing the innovative research and life-saving discoveries being made in UConn labs to support new industries and jobs. “We are pleased that Dr. Analoui is able to share his substantial capacity as a member of the CI board,” Seemann said. “We are confident that his work at UConn and CI will support efforts around the state to increase the success of emerging, sustainable companies that grow Connecticut’s economy.”

At UConn, Dr. Analoui works with academic and research leaders across all campuses to recruit investors, industry experts, and business leaders to participate in and fund new and existing UConn ventures. In this role, Dr. Analoui collaborates with various entrepreneurship programs at the University, leads the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP), and works closely with staff at UConn focused on technology commercialization.

About the University of Connecticut

The University of Connecticut is one of the top 25 public research universities in the nation and is a research leader in the fields of advanced materials, additive manufacturing, biomedical devices, cybersecurity, energy, life sciences, sensors, and nanotechnology. As Connecticut’s flagship institution of higher education, UConn serves as an important resource for Connecticut economic development and is dedicated to building collaborations with industry and entrepreneurs. To learn more, visit http://ip.uconn.edu.

About Connecticut Innovations

Connecticut Innovations (CI) is the leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative, growing companies. CI provides venture capital and strategic support for early-stage technology companies; grants that support innovation and collaboration; and connections to its well-established network of partners and professionals. For more information, please visit www.ctinnovations.com.

Chili Pepper and Marijuana Calm the Gut

You wouldn’t think chili peppers and marijuana have much in common. But when eaten, both interact with the same receptor in our stomachs, according to a paper by UConn researchers published in the April 24 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research could lead to new therapies for diabetes and colitis, and opens up intriguing questions about the relationship between the immune system, the gut, and the brain.

Touch a chili pepper to your mouth and you feel heat. And biochemically, you aren’t wrong. The capsaicin chemical in the pepper binds to a receptor that triggers a nerve that fires off to your brain: hot! Those same receptors are found throughout the gastrointestinal tract, for reasons that have been mysterious.

This allows you to imagine ways the immune system and the brain might talk to each other. They share a common language.
— Pramod Srivastava

Curious, UConn researchers fed capsaicin to mice, and found the mice fed with the spice had less inflammation in their guts. The researchers actually cured mice with Type 1 diabetes by feeding them chili pepper. When they looked carefully at what was happening at a molecular level, the researchers saw that the capsaicin was binding to a receptor called TRPV1, which is found on specialized cells throughout the gastrointestinal tract. When capsaicin binds to it, TRPV1 causes cells to make anandamide. Anandamide is a compound chemically akin to the cannabinoids in marijuana. It was the anandamide that caused the immune system to calm down. And the researchers found they could get the same gut-calming results by feeding the mice anandamide directly.

The brain also has receptors for anandamide. It’s these receptors that react with the cannabinoids in marijuana to get people high. Scientists have long wondered why people even have receptors for cannabinoids in their brains. They don’t seem to interact with vital bodily functions the way opiate receptors do, for example.

“This allows you to imagine ways the immune system and the brain might talk to each other. They share a common language,” says Pramod Srivastava, professor of immunology and medicine at UConn School of Medicine. And one word of that common language is anandamide.

Srivastava and his colleagues don’t know how or why anandamide might relay messages between the immune system and the brain. But they have found out the details of how it heals the gut. The molecule reacts with both TRPV1 (to produce more anandamide) and another receptor to call in a type of macrophage, immune cells that subdue inflammation. The macrophage population and activity level increase when anandamide levels increase. The effects pervade the entire upper gut, including the esophagus, stomach, and pancreas. They are still working with mice to see whether they also affect disorders in the bowel, such as colitis. And there are many other questions yet to be explored: what is the exact molecular pathway? Other receptors also react with anandamide; what do they do? How does ingesting weed affect the gut and the brain?

It’s difficult to get a federal license to experiment on people with marijuana, but the legalization of pot in certain states means there’s a different way to see whether regular ingestion of cannabinoids affects gut inflammation in humans.

“I’m hoping to work with the public health authority in Colorado to see if there has been an effect on the severity of colitis among regular users of edible weed,” since pot became legal there in 2012, Srivastava says. If the epidemiological data show a significant change, that would make a testable case that anandamide or other cannabinoids could be used as therapeutic drugs to treat certain disorders of the stomach, pancreas, intestines, and colon.

It seems a little ironic that both chili peppers and marijuana could make the gut chill out. But how useful if it’s true.

Isolating Their Target

Dr. Nicole Kummer (foreground), Stormy Chamberlain (left), and Ivy Pin-Fang Chen work on finding answers for Angelman syndrome. (File Photo)

Dr. Nicole Kummer (foreground), Stormy Chamberlain (left), and Ivy Pin-Fang Chen work on finding answers for Angelman syndrome. (File Photo)

Researchers at UConn Health used stem cells derived from patients with Angelman syndrome to identify the underlying cellular defects that cause the rare neurogenetic disorder, an important step in the ongoing search for potential treatments for Angelman and a possible cure.

Up until now, scientists trying to understand why the brain cells of individuals with Angelman fail to develop properly have relied primarily on mouse models that mimic the disorder.

By using human stem cells that are genetically identical to the brain cells of Angelman syndrome patients, researchers now have a much clearer and more accurate picture of what is going wrong.

In a study appearing today in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers report that the brain cells of individuals with Angelman syndrome fail to properly mature, causing a cascade of other developmental deficits that result in Angelman syndrome.

“We looked at the electrical activity of these brain cells and their ability to form connections, which is critical to the working circuits in the brain,” says UConn Health neuroscientist Eric Levine, the study’s lead author.

“We found that the cells from Angelman patients had impairments,” says Levine. “They didn’t develop the same way as they do in people who don’t have the disorder. They failed to develop mature electrical activity and they didn’t form connections as readily.”

Angelman syndrome appears in one out of every 15,000 live births. People with Angelman have developmental delays, are prone to seizures, and can have trouble walking or balancing. They have limited speech, but generally present a happy demeanor, frequently laughing and smiling.

The disorder occurs when a single gene that individuals inherit from their mother’s 15th chromosome is deleted or inactive. The paternal copy of that gene, known as UBE3A, is normally silenced in brain cells.

The research study led by Levine was done in collaboration with another research team at UConn Health led by developmental geneticist Stormy Chamberlain. Chamberlain is investigating the underlying genetic mechanisms that cause Angelman and how they might be reversed. Levine’s research team meanwhile, is looking at the physiology behind the disorder or what happens in the brain when the maternal UBE3A gene is missing or fails to work properly.

“What’s interesting about this particular study is that Eric captured some of the first electrophysiological differences between Angelman syndrome neurons and typically developing neurons, and it appears those primary deficits are setting up all of the other problems that are happening downstream,” says Chamberlain.

The human brain relies on electrical signals to process information. These signals pass between the neurons in our brain via special connections called synapses. In the current study, Levine found that at about three to five weeks into their development, brain cells in unaffected individuals ramp up their electrical activity while cells from Angelman patients do not. That failure to mature disrupts the ability of the Angelman cells to form proper synaptic connections, which is critical for learning, memory, and cognitive development.

“Other researchers haven’t seen this deficit in mouse models but we think it might have something to do with where they were looking,” says Chamberlain, who is a co-author on the current study. “In the mouse studies, researchers have been looking at either adults, juvenile, or early postnatal neurons. Eric is looking at some of the earliest changes in neurons that likely occur during fetal development.”

Angelman patients are very active in the ongoing research into the disorder. The induced pluripotent stem cells used in Levine’s research were derived from skin and blood cells donated by people with Angelman. Those cells were then reprogrammed into stem cells that were grown in the lab into brain cells that match the patient’s genetic makeup. This process allowed Levine to closely monitor how the cells developed from their very earliest stages in vitro and to see how they differed from control cells taken from people without the disorder.

To confirm that the cellular defects in the Angelman cells were caused by the loss of the UBE3A gene, Levine edited out the UBE3A gene in cells from the control group to see what would happen. Indeed, the same cascading chain of events occurred.

“In the control subjects who did not have Angelman, we basically knocked out the gene in order to mimic the Angelman defect,” Levine says. “If you do that early enough in development, you see all of the things go wrong in those cells. Interestingly, if you wait and knock out the gene later in development, you only see a subset of those deficits.”

Those results led Levine to believe that the delayed development of electrical activity in the brain cells from patients with Angelman is one of the driving factors causing other defects to occur. That knowledge is important for the development of possible drugs to combat Angelman. If scientists can stop that initial electrical failure from happening, it might prevent the other developmental problems from happening as well. Researchers with Ionis Pharmaceuticals from Carlsbad, California also participated in the current study.

With this new information in hand, Chamberlain and Levine are taking the research to the next level. They want to know exactly how the loss of the UBE3A gene causes the development of electrical activity in the early brain cells of Angelman patients to stop.

Another benefit of the current study is that the stem cell model created by Chamberlain and Levine can now be used to screen potential therapeutics for Angelman. Having the ability to monitor human brain cells in the lab will allow researchers to test dozens if not hundreds of compounds to see if they reverse Angelman’s cellular defects. The same process could be applied by scientists looking into other disorders.

And that’s good news.

“The Angelman Syndrome Foundation was proud to fund Dr. Levine’s research in 2011 and we are thrilled to see the results,” says Eileen Braun, executive director of the national nonprofit organization that funds Angelman syndrome research and supports individuals with Angelman and their families. “Having results published in Nature Communications, a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, illustrates the validity of this research, which ultimately helps us understand more about Angelman syndrome and helps lead us to our ultimate goal of treatments and a cure.”

Individuals interested in supporting people with Angelman syndrome and Angelman research are welcome to participate in a walk supporting the Angelman Syndrome Foundation on May 20 at Northwest Park, 448 Tolland Turnpike, Manchester, Connecticut. Registration opens at 8:30 a.m. The walk beings at 10 a.m. Donations are encouraged and accepted. The University of Connecticut is a sponsor of the walk.

UConn’s Climate Change Research

How will climate change alter bird migration patterns and the spread of invasive plants? How will residents of cities and coastal communities around the world need to adapt? UConn’s faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates are tackling these and other questions in labs and in the field every day. The answers may not halt the changes, but with each study, UConn’s researchers are amassing knowledge that will lead to greater understanding of what lies ahead.

UConn Astronomer to Glimpse First Galaxies

People have argued endlessly over what really happened at the dawn of the universe. But until now, no one could ever claim they’d seen it. As part of the new Cosmic Dawn Center, UConn astronomer Kate Whitaker might just get a chance to settle some of those arguments for good.

The Cosmic Dawn Center (DAWN) will gather data from four new telescopes: the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Euclid space mission to map the geometry of the dark universe, and the European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

DAWN of time: The timeline at the top of this image shows when each of the four new telescopes sending imagery to the DAWN Center come online: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) sees in the microwave spectrum and looks at early star formation; the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) records in the infrared and can see as far back as the Big Bang; Euclid is a space craft that will try to accurately measure the curvature of the universe; and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will use a 39 meter primary mirror, larger than the Lincoln Memorial, to get optical images of the first galaxies.
DAWN of time: The timeline at the top of this image shows when each of the four new telescopes sending imagery to the DAWN Center come online: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) sees in the microwave spectrum and looks at early star formation; the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) records in the infrared and can see as far back as the Big Bang; Euclid is a space craft that will try to accurately measure the curvature of the universe; and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will use a 39 meter primary mirror, larger than the Lincoln Memorial, to get optical images of the first galaxies.

Whitaker will get first crack at analyzing data from the four new eyes on the sky, and UConn students working with her will get to as well. DAWN will bring together experts in both observational astronomy and theory to do cutting-edge science related to the formation of the first galaxies. Whitaker’s special interest is understanding how and why the most massive galaxies in the universe existed for such a short period of time.

“It is puzzling how these massive beasts of the cosmos experience such a rapid formation and ultimate death at such early times, when the fuel for new star formation is still so abundant,” Whitaker says. Current telescopes cannot show enough detail to support the various models astronomers have proposed to explain the giant galaxies’ early demise; the new telescopes coming online will change all that.

DAWN will receive about $11 million over 10 years from the Danish National Research Foundation and will be located at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. Whitaker is one of six “associate team members,” who all maintain their regular research positions at their own institutions outside of Denmark but commit to spending extended periods at DAWN in the summers, including co-supervising students and post-docs, including some from UConn. Eight other institutions are involved. DAWN’s scientists will start analyzing data in September, and Whitaker plans to travel to Copenhagen with her UConn students for the first time in summer 2018.

Research Vessel to Undergo Upgrade

UConn’s marine research boat, the Research Vessel Connecticut, is getting a makeover. The updated ship will be capable of sustaining operations around the clock for several weeks at a time.

The R/V Connecticut, the larger of two marine research boats at the Avery Point campus, is now in the shipyard. Work is scheduled to begin later this month, and to be completed by mid-July.

Plans include lengthening the 18-year-old ship from 76 feet to 90 feet; doubling the laboratory space on board; and increasing the number of bunks from 12 to 18. The refurbished vessel will be able to hold 13 researchers and technicians, more than double the seven that are currently allowed on board. In order to lengthen the ship, construction crews will carefully cut it in half, and then weld in the 14-foot section.

The upgraded research vessel will be one of just a few of its kind on the Eastern Seaboard.

Professor James B. Edson, head of the marine sciences department, says the improvements will cause the ship’s research value to skyrocket.

“This will greatly enhance the capabilities of the ship to comfortably support 24/7 research operations for up to several weeks at sea. It will also make it much easier to bring groups of students to sea including overnight educational cruises,” he says. “It will enhance its already excellent reputation within the oceanographic community as a vessel able to deploy a wide variety of buoys, and autonomous and tethered underwater vehicles.”

Over the past 18 years, the R/V Connecticut has been used extensively not only by UConn researchers, but by a variety of different groups and institutions that have chartered it, including the U.S. Navy, the University of Rhode Island, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The marine sciences department also uses the boat as a teaching tool. “The R/V Connecticut is actively used to bring our undergraduate students to sea as part of our core curriculum,” says Edson. “This provides our students with hands-on experience with sensors, data collection, and data analysis.”

Many of the research projects include graduate students, and there are often opportunities for undergraduate students on the research cruises.

Marine sciences professor James O’Donnell, who specializes in using statistical and mathematical models to predict and analyze the physical processes of water circulation in coastal waters, has used the vessel frequently. His research allows organizations such as the Navy to more accurately determine water conditions for submarine and ship operations. If these organizations can predict water conditions, then they have a greater chance of successful and smooth missions.

O’Donnell has been one of the biggest proponents of lengthening the R/V Connecticut. He says it will enable him to provide more experiences to a larger number of students.

UConn marine sciences and geography professor Heidi Dierssen used the R/V Connecticut for a 2012 project looking for “red tides” in the Long Island Sound. Red tides are plankton that bloom so quickly they create toxins that are harmful to humans and marine life.

By using satellite imagery and water testing, Dierssen was able to create a different way of studying and identifying “red tides.” She says this wouldn’t have been possible without the use of UConn’s research vessels, which allowed her and her team to travel to Long Island Sound, identify the spot by collecting samples, and test the water for plankton using the ship’s microscopes.

Researchers hope that once the renovations are complete, the increase in the time the ship can stay on the water will offer more opportunities for further discoveries.

Says Edson, “The upgrade will make the R/V Connecticut a special asset to the oceanographic fleet along the eastern seaboard and extremely attractive for research.”

TIP Internship Program Delivers Big Rewards

Brendan Clark (left) and Tyler Ackley will be entering the PharmD program in the fall of 2017. (Sheila Foran/UConn Photo)
Brendan Clark (left) and Tyler Ackley will be entering the PharmD program in the fall of 2017. (Sheila Foran/UConn Photo)
Ask associate professor of reconstructive sciences Caroline Dealy to rate the success of the Technology Incubation Program’s (TIP) summer internship program so far and she says she’d give it an A+. She  hastens to add that she may be just a tad biased — it was her brainchild after all — but she stands by her assessment.

Ask Tyler Ackley ’17 (CLAS; Pharm) and Brendan Clark ’17 (CLAS; Pharm) what they think, and they say Dealy’s right. And they should know. Both participated in the summer 2016 TIP internship program and have utilized what they learned during those 10 weeks throughout the current academic year. Now, they are preparing to transition into PharmD studies next fall and they’re taking that experience with them.

In Ackley’s case, he had the bonus of working with Dealy on a project in her well-established lab that was ‘all his own’ with no other student researchers involved. And Clark had the benefit of being the only intern in an exciting startup that was founded by a newly minted UConn chemical engineering PhD — an experience that he says may influence his ultimate career choice.

Research in Rheumatoid Arthritis

When Dealy let it be known that she was looking for a research intern last summer, Ackley jumped at the chance. An Honors student with a double major in pharmacy and molecular and cell biology, it was the opportunity to turn bench research into a ‘real life’ therapeutic application that appealed to him.

“I had been studying genomic imprinting and its effect on cognitive development in mice in [associate professor] Michael O’Neill’s lab in MCB,” he says, “and when I found out that professor Dealy was looking for someone to participate in her research on Rheumatoid Arthritis, I applied for the TIP internship position. My role was to study how an epidermal growth factor receptor — a protein called EGFR for short — might be useful in targeted treatment of the disease.

“This was a great opportunity for me to take the skills I’d learned in the lab and apply them to a real life situation.”

Dealy describes UConn as a ‘talent factory’ and she says that Ackley is a great example. “Protein biology and characterization is not my normal focus, but Tyler was able to provide valuable input on approaches we need to explore. He was a real asset.”

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where a person’s immune system attacks the body’s own cells, leading to painful joint swelling and loss of mobility. Dealy hopes that Ackley’s research will eventually help lead to a better way of managing the disease, using a targeted approach that doesn’t rely on the powerful immunosuppressant medications that are currently prescribed.

The School of Pharmacy shares Dealy’s excitement about the potential for Ackley’s research and recently named him as the recipient of this year’s Karl A. Nieforth Pharmacy Student Research Award, a highly selective honor that includes a stipend and research funds. This support will enable him to continue his work throughout the summer of 2017.

In on the Ground Floor

In Clark’s case, he was at the right place at the right time.

His mentor, Ying Liu, had taken the School of Engineering’s courses in Experiential Technology Entrepreneurship I and II with professor Hadi Bozorgmanesh as she studied for her doctorate in chemical engineering. At the same time, she was inspired by School of Pharmacy professor Diane Burgess and her class on surface chemistry and colloid science. She was intrigued by the possibility of applying her scientific knowledge to the development of cosmetic products that would promote healthy skin conditions.

Liu was awarded a ‘Third Bridge Grant’ which provides early funding to engineering students with promising technologies as they begin to move their ideas towards successful commercialization, and she was also accepted into TIP.

By last summer, Liu had a name for her nascent company — ReinEsse for rejuvination, innovation, and essence — initial funding, and laboratory space in Farmington.  What she needed was help in developing her idea into a full-fledged product.

“I learned about the TIP summer internship program,” she says, “and I interviewed a number of students. They were all good, but Brendan really stood out. It was clear from the beginning that he’s passionate about research and he has great communications skills — both things that have proven to be invaluable.”

Brendan Clark '17 (Pharm; CLAS) - seated - and Tyler Ackley '17 (Pharm; CLAS) compare notes in the lab. (Sheila Foran/UConn Photo)
Brendan Clark ’17 (Pharm; CLAS) – seated – and Tyler Ackley ’17 (Pharm; CLAS) compare notes in the lab. (Sheila Foran/UConn Photo)

Clark says that as the first person to join Liu’s company he was in the enviable position of feeling like a colleague as much as an intern. A double major in biology and pharmacy, he felt both challenged by the opportunity and right at home working alongside someone with whom he shared such similar interests.

“I was already working with liposomes, which are nanoscale particles that can be used to improve the delivery of drugs or vitamins throughout the body,” he says, “and one of the things that excited me about working for ReinEsse is that I am interested in dermatology. At one time I had even thought of going to medical school to become a dermatologist.

“People sometimes think of cosmetics as being superficial, but if we can develop products that make people not only feel and look better, put possibly even play a role in managing underlying skin conditions, than that would be amazing.”

Planning for the Future

The Technology Incubation Program (TIP) was originally created almost two decades ago to provide lab space, technological and business expertise, and other support for startup technology companies  — including companies utilizing UConn based research.

TIP startups are located in incubators on campuses in Storrs, Avery Point, and Farmington. Last year, TIP doubled in capacity with the opening of a new 26,000 square foot incubator at UConn Health, which is already close to fully occupied by new startup companies.

“The integration of research and commercialization that happens in TIP startup companies has been a tremendous success in accelerating development of new technologies and innovations,” according to Dealy.

Through her efforts over the past five years, UConn students are now part of this success. That’s when Dealy came up with the idea of a summer internship program that would bridge industry and academia at UConn by immersing its students into the world of technology commercialization — giving them hands on experiences and ground floor opportunities that, in some cases, might eventually lead to full time employment. The program lasts 10 weeks and comes with a stipend of $3500 for undergraduates and $5,000 for Master’s students.

With the support of UConn’s deans who cover the intern stipends, Dealy has grown the summer program to where this year there are 215 applications for up to 20 available slots — an increase over the 10 to 15 positions available in prior years.

In addition to the lab experience, students attend weekly workshops and training sessions that Ackley and Clark describe as extremely beneficial, providing insights into both other fields of bioscience and into the whole commercialization process.

Both have continued with the work they began last summer, with Ackley writing his Honors thesis based on his work with Dealy,  and Clark doing an independent study on transdermal drug delivery.

As for the immediate future, both students will be entering the PharmD program in the fall and will be occupied for the next two years in the academic and internship activities required for that professional degree. Beyond that?

Ackley says he is already thinking ahead to a possible PhD program and a career in either the pharmaceutical industry or in academia — or both. Clark is also thinking about a possible role in the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps in regulatory or medical affairs or clinical development. But then again, his experience with ReinEsse has him thinking that being part of an exciting new company with both medical and cosmetic applications – aka cosmeceuticals — might be the way to go.

Whatever their decisions, the future looks bright for both these young scholars.

UConn Startups Attracting Investment

ssinger@courant.com

By STEPHEN SINGER

The University of Connecticut is claiming bragging rights for significantly boosting investment in technology startup businesses fostered at its business incubation program.

Nearly three dozen companies, including a vaccine immunotherapy firm and a business developing a therapy to restore hearing, drew nearly $40 million in investments last year, UConn said. That’s more than double the $14.6 million in investments in 2015 and up from more than $24 million, the previous record set in 2014, the university said.

“It’s a good return on state investment,” Jeff Seemann, vice president for research at UConn, said Tuesday. “The return on investment is growing and substantial.”

The growth follows state support of $20 million to double UConn’s capacity for business incubators, he said.

The nearly $40 million in investments represents a 63 percent return on the state investment of $20 million two years ago and $4.5 million in grants from foundations and other sources.

UConn’s Technology Incubation Program was established in 2004 to accelerate the growth of technology startups that are connected to the university. State officials, using the state venture capital firm Connecticut Innovations, and other incentives, are trying to promote growth in bioscience, software design and other technology businesses to create more high-paying jobs.

Connecticut is struggling to replace high-paying manufacturing jobs that increasingly have been replaced by less well-paying work.

The business incubator housed 33 companies at the end of last year, which has increased to 37 now, with four under review, said Mostafa Analoui, executive director of venture development at UConn.

Businesses typically are offered a three-year contract, which is enough time for software companies, though drug development businesses may require more time, he said.

CaroGen Corp., a vaccine immunotherapy company, is benefiting from UConn’s business incubator. It has raised $2 million from investors and is trying to raise $10 million this year, CEO Bijan Almassian said.

Immunotherapies the company is developing have applications in infectious diseases and cancer, he said. They could treat chronic infections related to hepatitis B and immunotherapies being developed in collaboration with UConn professors could be used to treat colon cancer.

For CaroGen, which employs 10 workers, advantages of working in UConn’s business incubator include collaboration with faculty and access to costly equipment such as centrifuge microscopes that CaroGen could not afford on its own.

CaroGen has been at UConn’s business incubator for more than two years and Almassian said he hopes that with more funding the company can move to a larger space.

– See more at: http://digitaledition.courant.com/tribune/article_popover.aspx?guid=855102c4-2e05-4f3e-a664-8092ddc01106#sthash.BycWQYBZ.dpuf