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Accelerate Uconn – News

Crossing the River to Find Healthcare Solutions

Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Kourosh Parham, MD, Ph.D. has come up with a blood test that can detect hearing loss far sooner than existing tests.  Early detection can potentially prevent further hearing loss, Parham told a group of medical practitioners, faculty and students from engineering, business, medicine and other UConn graduate programs at Healthcare Solutions Night, held recently at UConn Health.

Many people suffer from hearing loss, but hearing tests are limited and fail to capture the full range of hearing, he said. Researchers are working on medications to prevent further hearing damage – once it has been detected. But, at this point, he can’t give patients their test results until he has 90 blood samples to test at once. He was seeking someone to help him find a way to test blood samples individually.

As soon as he finished his presentation, people in the audience suggested ideas and offered to collaborate.

A biodegradable force sensor developed by Dr. Thanh Duc Nguyen from the Department of Mechanical Engineering

A biodegradable force sensor developed by Dr. Thanh Duc Nguyen from the Department of Mechanical Engineering

Parham was one of five clinicians and researchers at the recent cross-pollination event aimed at developing solutions to pressing health-care problems. He and the other presenters had devised a potential solution to a problem and came hoping others with different skills could help bring the ideas to market. In addition, Thanh Duc Nguyen, Ph.D., a member of the department of mechanical engineering who invented an implantable, dissolvable sensor, was looking to partner with clinicians who could apply his biodegradable sensor to their practice. He knew he had a great idea, but needed to demonstrate its ability to positively impact medical conditions.

Teams that formed during the team-building portion of the event will compete for two $1,500 Healthcare Solutions Seed Grants offered through the Accelerate UConn program. Accelerate UConn is a joint operation of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Accelerate UConn’s goal is to build and support cross-disciplinary teams that improve the likelihood of commercial success of UConn technologies. The funds are intended to help the winning teams begin working together and prepare for future competitions where they can win additional funding and business development support.

“Sometimes you get unexpected solutions when you mix the crowd together,” said Mostafa Analoui, Ph.D. executive director of Venture Development, Office of the Vice President for Research and the evening’s host.  Anne Diamond, CEO of UConn John Dempsey Hospital and Dr. Bruce Liang, dean of the School of Medicine, welcomed and encouraged the attendees, a mixture of medical students, graduate students, faculty and clinicians.  “This is a great way to spur an accelerated effort to commercialize academic research,” Liang said.

The other presenters were Dr. Santhanam Lakshminarayanan, Division of Rheumatology; Dr. Joel Levine, Colon Cancer Prevention Program; Dr. Courtney Townsel, Department of Maternal-Fetal Medicine; and Heather Spear, M.S.N., A.P.R.N., Department of Psychiatry.

Dr. Courtney Townsel is a Maternal Fetal MedicineFellow at UConn. She is developing a non-invasive treatment for cervical cerclage. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Photo).

Dr. Courtney Townsel is a Maternal Fetal MedicineFellow at UConn. She is developing a non-invasive treatment for cervical cerclage. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Photo).

After Parham and other presenters explained their concepts, attendees from the various disciplines were invited to approach whichever presenter they felt they could help, given their various disciplinary expertise or interest. Evan R. Jellison, Ph.D., assistant professor, immunology, who runs the Flow Cytometry lab at UConn Health, met with Parham to discuss ideas for an alternate, more efficient and individualized blood test method.

“We are planning to apply for the Healthcare Solutions Seed Grant to fund our collaboration,” Parham said following the meeting.

Another presenter, psychiatric nurse Heather Spear, held her son’s teddy bear while explaining her idea for a device that could be imbedded into a stuffed animal to help sooth delirious patients. She outlined the problem faced in hospitals nationwide, pointing out that as Baby Boomers age, the challenge will snowball.

More than 40 percent of the patients admitted to UConn John Dempsey Hospital are over 65, and nationally, about 35 percent of admitted patients are at least age 65.  About 10 to 31 percent of patients 65 and older come to hospitals in a state of delirium, said Spear, a leader in the NICHE (Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders) program at UConn Health. Once they arrive, another 11 to 42 percent develop delirium.

As a result, these patients’ hospital stays are prolonged, increasing their risk of infection, decline, continued confusion and death. These factors lead to increased costs and decreased quality of life.

Spear hopes to create a hospital-acceptable bear that has a four-quadrant, digital panel imbedded in its belly. When patients touch the bear, whether intentionally or accidently, they would see and hear either a video of a loved one, the date and time, video clips of TV shows from their younger years or music from their youth. The bear has to withstand being thrown, since delirious patients can become agitated, anxious or disoriented.

During the team-building portion of the event, electrical engineer Insoo Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of medicine at the UConn Health, offered Spear new ideas to advance her product’s development. “The solution to your idea is a software design rather than a device,” he said with confidence. “We can program the tablet. A student can write an app.”

“To me, it was rocket science,” she said later. “I was thinking, ‘This is exactly why I came to this event.’ ”

She’s had this idea for a few years, but jumped on the chance to present it to colleagues with different skills, she said.

“I was somewhat nervous, but I knew that I only had to present what I know,” Spear said. “It was a very welcoming audience. They’re there because they want to be there. They’re hoping to hear something they can jump in on and invent and make.”

It was comforting to see a few other nurses in the audience, she said. She wasn’t sure her idea would gain any traction and was thrilled at the response. Other nurses who work with dementia patients felt it would help their patients who experience memory loss.

Kim invited Spear to attend the Senior Design Pitch Day on March 27, where third-year biomedical engineering students hear about different ideas that they could work on for their senior design projects. Energized, she’s working on her application for the Healthcare Solutions Seed Grant offered through the Accelerate UConn program.

Accelerate UConn is the University’s National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Site. Its mission is to bring scientific discoveries and capabilities from the lab to the marketplace.  Participating teams receive $3,000 in seed funding for their new ventures and an introduction to the most critical elements of the I-Corps Curriculum and Lean Launchpad methodology. Over seven weeks, teams learn how to assess the market opportunity for their product or technology.

Each workshop provides hands-on training in the basics of business planning and is delivered by entrepreneurs and faculty members. These coaches provide personalized guidance and feedback to help teams construct an evidence-based business model and market-entry strategy.  Participating teams also receive $3,000 in seed funding for their ventures. Accelerate UConn is open to all university faculty and students.  For more information, visit www.accelerate.uconn.edu.

Accelerate UConn Spring 2017 Winners Announced

Accelerate UConn, an NSF I-Corps Site to move technologies more quickly and successfully from the lab to the market

Accelerate UConn, an NSF I-Corps Site to move technologies more quickly and successfully from the lab to the market

Dr. Jeff Seemann, UConn/UConn Health Vice President for Research, and Dr. Timothy B. Folta, Professor of Management and Faculty Director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, are pleased to announce the teams selected to participate in the Spring cohort of Accelerate UConn, the University’s National Science Foundation I-Corps site. The following teams will receive special training and a $3,000 seed grant to help understand whether and how their technology might create customer value:

  • Dr. Abhishek Dutta, Ashwini Srishyla & Alexei Sondergeld (Faculty & Graduate Students), Drought Water Generator, School of Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Dr. Sandra Weller, Dr. Dennis Wright & Dr. Lorry Grady (Faculty & Postdoctoral Fellow), Small Molecule Inhibitors, Schools of Medicine & Pharmacy, Departments of Molecular Biology & Biophysics and Pharmaceutical Sciences
  • Dong Yu & Susan Jacob (Graduate Students), High Rate BioGas Conditioning, School of Business, MBA Program
  • Katie Boyle (Faculty), Novel Underarm Scrub, Center for Public Health & Health Policy
  • Caseem Ward (Undergraduate Student), Project Mobo, School of Business
  • Dr. David Han, Dr. Poornima Hegde & Veneta Qendro (Faculty & Graduate Student), Therapeutic Antibodies for Triple Negative Breast Cancer, School of Medicine, Departments of Cell Biology and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
  • Dr. George Lykotrafitis & Kostyantyn Partola (Faculty & Graduate Student) WBV Rheometer Project, School of Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering
  • Dr. Rampi Ramprasad, Dr. Huan Tran, Chiho Kim & Arun Mannodi Kanakkithodi (Faculty, Postdoctoral Fellows & Graduate Student), Polymer Genome Project, Institute of Materials Science
  • Faizan Khan, Ishita Banerjee & Natalie Miccile (Undergraduate & Graduate Students), Dermatat, Schools of Medicine & Business, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Departments of Mathematics, Physics, Immunology and MBA Program

The program includes seven weeks of intensive training to evaluate their business ideas and conduct customer discovery activities.

In cases where a single faculty member or student was accepted into the program, the AU staff helped identify appropriate Academic or Entrepreneurial Leads or Industry Mentors to round out the team.

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) jointly operate Accelerate UConn (AU).  As an NSF I-Corps Site program, AU was formed to foster entrepreneurship resulting in technology commercialization.  I-Corps Sites are academic institutions that catalyze the engagement of multiple, local teams in technology transition and strengthen local innovation.

For more information about Accelerate UConn, visit www.accelerate.uconn.edu or email accelerateuconn@uconn.edu

Accelerate UConn Fall 2016 Winners Announced

Dr. Jeff Seemann, UConn/UConn Health Vice President for Research and Dr. Timothy B. Folta, Professor of Management and Faculty Director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, are pleased to announce the teams selected to participate in the Fall cohort of Accelerate UConn, the University’s National Science Foundation I-Corps site. The following teams will receive special training and a $3,000 seed grant to help understand whether and how their technology might create customer value:

  • Challa Kumar & Melissa Limbacher (Faculty & Graduate Student), GlowDots, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Department of Chemistry
  • Radenka Maric & Claire Leonardi (Faculty & Industry), Health eSense, School of Engineering, Departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
  • Pishikesh Pandey & Dr. Tulio Valdez (Faculty), Raman spectroscopy based approach for middle ear disease diagnosis, School of Medicine/Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, Department of Pediatrics
  • Neil Howard (Student), Verge Finance, School of Business, Department of Management
  • Seyed Mohamad Amin Salehizadeh (Recent Doctoral Alumnus), Pediatric Wearable Health and Activity Status Monitoring Headband, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Department of Psychological Sciences
  • John Settlage & Kevin Agnello (Faculty & Doctoral Candidate), STEM Achievement Data Gap Analysis Tool, Neag School of Education, Department of Teacher Education
  • Rajesh Lalla & Sarah Goldstein (Faculty & Doctoral Candidate), A novel long-acting topical anesthetic agent for pain secondary to oral mucositis and other oral ulcerative conditions, School of Dental Medicine, Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences
  • Guanwei Tao (Graduate Student), a software device for preventing pressure in hospital, School of Business

In cases where a single faculty member or student was accepted into the program, the AU staff helped identify appropriate Academic or Entrepreneurial Leads or Industry Mentors to round out the team.

Accelerate UConn, an NSF I-Corps Site to move technologies more quickly and successfully from the lab to the market

Accelerate UConn, an NSF I-Corps Site to move technologies more quickly and successfully from the lab to the market

Accepted teams recently participated in the Accelerate UConn kick-off event. The program includes six weeks of intensive training to evaluate their business ideas and conduct customer discovery activities.

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) jointly operate Accelerate UConn (AU).  As an NSF I-Corps Site program, AU was formed to foster entrepreneurship resulting in technology commercialization.  I-Corps Sites are academic institutions that catalyze the engagement of multiple, local teams in technology transition and strengthen local innovation.

For more information about Accelerate UConn, visit www.accelerate.uconn.edu or email accelerateuconn@uconn.edu

UConn TIP startup CaroGen Corporation raises $1M in Series A Funds for novel Hepatitis B immunotherapy

October 19, 2016, Farmington, CT — CaroGen Corporation, an emerging immunotherapy company, announced today that it has raised $1 million through GP Fortune Investment Partners (GPFI), LLC, a subsidiary of G.P. Healthcare, a conglomerate organization, based in Shandong, China. The $1 million investment will be used to advance the company’s Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) development in the U.S. CaroGen and GPFI, LLC have also agreed to negotiate an agreement to develop and market CaroGen’s HBV immunotherapy product for the China territory. In return for the rights of development and marketing of HBV immunotherapy in China, GPFI LLC would invest up to an additional $7 million in CaroGen over the next 36 months based on achieving certain HBV preclinical milestones. CaroGen’s President & CEO, Bijan Almassian, Ph.D. commented that “This strategic partnership would be mutually beneficial to both parties. There are 240 million to 350 million individuals worldwide infected with the HBV, one-third of whom reside in China, with 130 million carriers and 30 million chronically infected with the virus. The relationship and investment from GPFI is a major milestone for CaroGen and will provide us the resources necessary to advance our HBV immunotherapy toward the clinic. GPFI is an ideal partner for this application of the VLV platform technology and its commitment combined with the Chinese government’s support of local companies working on major unmet medical needs such as HBV will be of major benefit to CaroGen going forward.” added Dr. Almassian. CaroGen Corporation is an emerging immunotherapy company employing a transformative virus-like vesicle (VLV) platform technology developed at Yale University School of Medicine and exclusively licensed by CaroGen for the development and commercialization of immunotherapies worldwide. The company is developing a portfolio of immunotherapies with a lead program in chronic hepatitis B viral infection in collaboration with Professor John Rose, from Yale University School of Medicine and Dr. Michael Robek from Albany Medical College. CaroGen is also working on the development of VLV immunotherapies against C. difficile, a bacterial infection in collaboration with Dr. Kamal Khanna, Zika virus with Dr. Paulo Verardi, as well as a vaccine against colon cancer in collaboration with Drs. Anthony Vella and Kepeng Wang at University of Connecticut Health Center.

Contact at CaroGen Corporation: Bijan Almassian (203) 815-5782 balmassian@carogencorp.com

New Device Improves Measurement of Water Pollution

Professor Penny Vlahos, and graduate assistant Joe Warren recipients of a grant from the University’s new National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Site, Accelerate UConn on Aug. 18, 2016. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
UConn scientists marine geochemist Penny Vlahos, right, and graduate assistant Joe Warren are commercializing a new technology they developed to more easily measure contaminants in water. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

UConn researchers have developed a device that makes it easier to measure contaminant levels in water.

With help from UConn’s National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program, Accelerate UConn, marine geochemist Penny Vlahos and graduate student Joe Warren are now well on their way to commercializing their technology.

Access to clean water is a major concern for nations around the globe. The new device can measure pollution in oceans, lakes, and rivers, and even in the home.

A passive sampling device for improved detection of toxic organic pollutants. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

A passive sampling device for improved detection of toxic organic pollutants. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

“I was frustrated that we weren’t measuring contaminants as often or as well as we should, just because it was too labor-intensive and costly,” says Vlahos. “This device lets us test more bodies of water quickly, easily, and inexpensively, and yields results that better reflect the overall situation. The potential environmental impact is huge.”

Currently, if the quality of a body of water needs testing, a large sample is collected – between five and 20 liters of water – and is then transported to a lab for analysis. This process, known as “grab sampling,” is labor-intensive and can be prohibitively expensive. As a result, small-scale testing by citizens who want to measure contaminants in a local stream or in their private wells isn’t feasible.

In contrast, Vlahos says her technology is so easy a child could do it. In fact, the device doesn’t require collecting a water sample at all, because it uses a process called “passive sampling.” The small, ecofriendly sampling device is placed directly into the body of water being tested, where it stays for a few hours and is then removed. Once back in the lab, it takes a little over two hours to conduct a full analysis of the water’s target contaminant levels.

Another important feature of the new technology is that it provides continuous sampling over time, which isn’t possible with grab sampling. Since the device remains in the water, it gives a more representative picture of an aquatic environment’s overall health, instead of the limited snapshot from grab sampling. Because of their low cost, a greater number of the semi-disposable passive samplers can be simultaneously deployed over a larger area to yield more comprehensive and informative data.

The device currently measures a host of organic contaminants, such as industrial chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), pesticides, synthetic chemicals that mimic hormones like estrogen, and even munition compounds from unexploded weapons that find their way into bodies of water. Vlahos has already tested the technology in a variety of aquatic and sedimentary environments, both nationally and internationally.

Although Vlahos was confident in her technology’s ability to improve on standard industry practices, she wasn’t sure how to commercialize it or who the target customer would be. So she and Warren turned to Accelerate UConn, a program that helps entrepreneurial faculty and students at all UConn campuses validate their technology business ideas.

Learning the Ropes of Starting a Business

The program was launched in May 2015, and is jointly operated by the Office of the Vice President for Research and theConnecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), housed in the School of Business.

“Many UConn innovations have valuable, real-world applications, but our faculty and students need the right tools to successfully commercialize them,” says Jeff Seemann, UConn vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn provides those tools, and helps promising technologies take those critical first steps towards the market, where they can benefit the state’s citizens and economy.”

Warren, who has long aspired to be an entrepreneur, acted as the team’s ‘entrepreneurial lead.’ He was responsible for attending weekly webinars, making presentations, and conducting interviews with potential customers to validate the researchers’ assumptions about their technology and the market.

He says he could relate to the program’s Lean Launchpad methodology because of his background in science.

“Even though commercializing a technology was totally new to me, the framework they provided was familiar,” says Warren. “By running small iterations of ‘experiments’ on products or services with potential customers, you can really shape your business before you have to fully launch, and do a lot of the learning before you spend lots of time and money.”

The knowledge that participants gain from completing the Accelerate UConn program can serve as a stepping stone for additional funding through internal sources, like the UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, as well as external sources like federal Small Business Innovation Research grants.

Warren recently won a $15,000 Summer Fellowship offered by CCEI, where he and Vlahos were able to build upon the progress they had made in Accelerate UConn. As a result, he was also selected to compete for an additional $15,000 provided through the Wolff New Venture Competition this September.

Timothy B. Folta, UConn professor of business and CCEI faculty director, says entrepreneurs like Vlahos and Warren gain a new outlook on their products from participating in Accelerate UConn, and this can be important for their success as entrepreneurs.

“One of the most potent criticisms of university technology commercialization is that technologists do not have a good understanding about whether customers really want their technology, because they are enamored with it,” Folta says. “Accelerate UConn aims to correct this bias.”

Vlahos and Warren are not slowing down. They are actively seeking additional internal and external funding, are continuing to develop new applications for their device, and plan to conduct more pilot tests on the technology in the coming months.

To date, approximately 20 teams have successfully completed the Accelerate UConn program. Applications are currently being accepted for the Fall 2016 cycle, which begins in October. The deadline is Sept. 9. For more information and to access the application, visit www.accelerate.uconn.edu.

The Road to Native Vegetation in Highway Design

Yulia Kuzovkina-Eischen, associate professor of plant science & landscape architecture, and John Campanelli, a graduate student, inspect the growth of native species planted on DOT property along U.S. RT 6 in North Windham on Aug. 29, 2016. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Graduate student John Campanelli, right, shown here with his adviser Professor Yulia Kuzovkina-Eischen, is working to commercialize software he developed to make roadside native plant projects more successful. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Connecticut is recognized nationally for highways with beautiful historic architecture, like the bridges along the Merritt Parkway. Yet the vegetation along the roadside tends to look the same for miles on end.

UConn graduate student John Campanelli hopes that someday soon, drivers will have a much more scenic and varied view.

There’s no question that regional vegetation is a better ecological choice, but now it can also be a better economical one. — John Campanelli

With the help of a growing entrepreneurship program, Accelerate UConn, Campanelli is developing software called iConservationist to guide highway design, with a focus on native, biodiverse plant communities and pollinator habitats.

Today, the vegetation along New England’s highways is dominated by a non-native, fast-growing turfgrass that is mowed short, to just a few inches high. This sod is often chosen by departments of transportation for its ability to take root quickly, but it doesn’t occur naturally in New England and grows from seeds manufactured predominantly in the Western United States.

Campanelli had the idea for this technology while conducting research for his master’s degree in ecological restoration at UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. He was working with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) on a project to transition roadside vegetation from non-native turfgrass to more sustainable native warm season grasses and wildflowers.

Although the native plants can grow naturally in New England and state transportation agencies recognize the benefits of using them, Campanelli discovered that DOTs were having trouble making the switch from turfgrass.

“The entire process requires significant time, effort, and commitment – from analyzing a site’s soil and microclimate, to selecting ideal species to plant, to monitoring and maintenance after planting,” he says. “I knew this technology could make establishing sustainable, ecofriendly roadside vegetation habitats more successful.”

It’s not just about improving the view for motorists, either. There are countless advantages to using a biodiverse combination of native warm season grasses and wildflowers along our highways.

For instance, traditional turfgrass contributes to the disruption of natural habits for important pollinators like bees, birds, and bats, along with other factors such as development infringing on existing ecosystems. When a pollinator’s preferred environment is altered, the population eventually becomes fragmented and vulnerable. In fact, the U.N. recently reported that 40 percent of pollinators currently face extinction, which could have major repercussions for the world’s food supply and the future health of ecosystems. Using native plants instead of turfgrass along vehicle corridors is advantageous because it provides connections between ecosystems and lets pollinators migrate easily to find new food sources.

There are also significant cost savings associated with using native warm season grasses – if they survive. While traditional turfgrass needs mowing three to five times a year, wildflowers and native grasses only need to be mowed or maintained once per year, which reduces fuel and personnel costs. But knowing when is the best time to mow can be a challenge.

Along with the fuel and personnel savings from reduced mowing, native plants also act as a natural deterrent to erosion. While standard turfgrass roots reach approximately six inches into the ground, native warm season grasses root as deep as six feet. Reduced erosion means that highway infrastructure requires less costly repair and maintenance.

iConservationist helps planting projects succeed by taking the guess work out for users. The software simplifies the complex transition process by better calculating project costs and seed rates, improving how information about a project is stored and shared, and identifying ideal times for maintenance activities to occur.

“There’s no question that regional vegetation is a better ecological choice, but now it can also be a better economical one,” says Campanelli. “iConservationist will help DOTs protect their investment, at the same time they’re helping to protect the environment.”

To move his technology closer to market, Campanelli applied to Accelerate UConn, a program that helps aspiring entrepreneurs validate their ideas for innovative products and services. Based on the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps curriculum, Accelerate UConn provides participants with rigorous training, a small seed grant, and connections with industry experts in appropriate fields.

The program, which is the only NSF I-Corps site in the state, is jointly operated by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), housed in the School of Business.

“There is a wealth of technologies coming out of UConn labs that could be commercialized with the right set of tools,” says Jeff Seemann, UConn’s vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn helps early-stage ideas move beyond the lab, join the ranks of other successful Connecticut startups, and have an impact in our communities and our state economy.”

For seven weeks, Campanelli and the other would-be entrepreneurs in Accelerate UConn’s second cycle spent numerous hours in the classroom and in the field, conducting interviews with potential customers. The goal is to understand the customer, channels, pricing, and other parts of the business model before actually launching a business.

Teams that successfully complete Accelerate UConn are much better positioned to succeed as entrepreneurs in the future, says UConn professor of business and CCEI faculty director, Timothy Folta. “One of the most potent criticisms of university technology commercialization is that technologists do not have a good understanding about whether customers really want their technology because they are enamored with it. Accelerate UConn aims to correct this bias.”

A horticulturist by trade, Campanelli credits Accelerate UConn with showing him what it takes to be an entrepreneur. In particular, it demonstrated the importance of being decisive and the value of a good business team.

“I was dedicated to getting out there and finding early adopters for my technology. It was a big commitment,” he said. “That’s what you need to be a successful entrepreneur: a singular focus. You have to be committed, for yourself and the other people on your team. You can’t just dabble, you have to set goals and meet them. You have to take that leap.”

Campanelli is continuing to “take the leap” and commercialize his iConservationist software. He is currently looking for grants to advance his technology, as well as partners with programming expertise.

To date, approximately 20 teams have successfully completed the Accelerate UConn program. Applications are currently being accepted for the fall 2016 cycle, which begins in October. The deadline is Sept. 9. For more information and to access the application, go to www.accelerate.uconn.edu.

New Product Seeks to Prevent Premature Labor

Dr. Courtney Townsel, left, looks on as Dr. Winston Campbell performs an ultrasound on an expectant mother. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Health Photo)
With support from UConn’s Innovation Corps program, UConn Health’s Dr. Courtney Townsel, left, hopes to commercialize a new technology to address a rare but serious condition of pregnancy. Townsel looks on as Dr. Winston Campbell performs an ultrasound on an expectant mother. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Health Photo)

When Dr. Courtney Townsel sees an expectant mother with a rare, but serious condition called cervical insufficiency, she only has a few treatment options. Despite steady advances in how we treat mothers and their unborn babies during high-risk pregnancies, none of her options are ideal. In fact, the procedure most commonly performed to treat cervical insufficiency has remained largely the same since the 1950s.

An idea to improve the invasive, traditional procedure known as cervical cerclage came to Townsel, a Maternal-Fetal Medicine Fellow at UConn Health, after leaving the operating room one day. She is now transforming that idea into a viable product with the help of Accelerate UConn, the University’s National Science Foundation Innovation Corps site.

Just because it’s what we’ve always done doesn’t mean we should keep doing it the exact same way. I thought we could do better. — Dr. Courtney Townsel

Also known as incompetent cervix, cervical insufficiency occurs following painless dilation of the cervix too early during pregnancy. This leads to premature birth, putting affected newborns at a much higher risk for health problems and prolonged hospitalization both immediately after delivery and throughout their lives. Worse still, in many instances labor begins so early that the fetus cannot yet survive outside the womb.

To prevent pregnant women with the condition from going into premature labor, highly trained maternal-fetal medicine specialists like Townsel currently use a needle to stitch or incisions to place an encircling suture below the surface of the cervix to tie it closed. This invasive surgical operation is known as cervical cerclage. Cerclage is usually performed transvaginally, but sometimes requires going through the patient’s abdomen. Both methods have significant drawbacks: they are costly, difficult to perform, require hospitalization and anesthesia, and come with a laundry list of serious potential surgical complications.

“This procedure is widely accepted in the field, but it is far from perfect,” says Townsel. “Also, it doesn’t always prevent premature birth and is usually not performed beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy.

“Just because it’s what we’ve always done doesn’t mean we should keep doing it the exact same way,” she adds. “I thought we could do better.”

Townsel’s technology, which is in the early stages of development, essentially removes all of the potential complications for the patients – mom and baby – associated with traditional cerclage because it does not involve surgery or require hospitalization. Instead of being performed in an operating room under general or spinal anesthesia, her technology has the potential to allow cervical cerclage to take place with a quick, in-office procedure.

Removing the need for an OR setting also cuts costs significantly. Hospital pricing data indicates that the traditional cervical cerclage procedure runs approximately $5,000 in Connecticut. Townsel anticipates her product would cost about one-fifth of that amount.

To move her product closer to market where it could potentially save the lives of unborn babies, Townsel applied to the University’s I-Corps site, Accelerate UConn. She was among 11 applicants selected to participate in the entrepreneurship program’s second funding cycle.

Helping UConn Entrepreneurs Get Started

Accelerate UConn was launched in 2015 and is funded through a grant from the NSF. Under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), Accelerate UConn aims to successfully advance more University technologies along the commercialization continuum.

“Providing this type of critical early-stage support to develop technologies that could potentially save lives is at the heart of Accelerate UConn’s mission,” says Jeff Seemann, UConn vice president for research. “Successfully commercializing more of the discoveries coming out of UConn not only benefits the University, but also has a positive impact on Connecticut’s citizens and our state’s continued economic development.”

In the Accelerate UConn program, ‘entrepreneurial leads’ like Townsel spend much of their time conducting interviews with potential customers to evaluate their preconceptions about who their customers will be and why they would buy a future product. More often than not, would-be entrepreneurs realize their initial thoughts are off the mark.

“Discovering that your technology or business model does not resonate with potential customers is actually a positive outcome,” says UConn professor of business and CCEI faculty director, Timothy B. Folta. “Getting this feedback early in the process, before spending a lot of time and money, lets the entrepreneur pivot, or reorient his or her venture strategy to prepare their next round of customer discovery.”

Accelerate UConn also stresses the importance of a good team to propel technologies forward. Entrepreneurial Leads work with both an ‘academic lead’ – usually a faculty member with strong expertise in the field – and an industry mentor. The Accelerate UConn staff facilitates the team-building process for applicants who don’t yet have a fully formed team.

Path to Commercialization

Dr. Winston Campbell, left, and Dr. Courtney Townsel at UConn Health. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Health Photo)

Maternal-fetal medicine specialist Dr. Winston Campbell, left, is a key advisor to Dr. Courtney Townsel in her quest to commercialize the new technology she conceived of to treat cervical insufficiency. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Health Photo)

In Townsel’s case, she had an existing relationship with an ideal academic lead, Dr. Winston Campbell, who is her program advisor and a renowned maternal-fetal medicine specialist at UConn Health. Accelerate UConn staff also helped her connect with an experienced entrepreneur named Wendy Davis. Davis is CEO of GestVision, a Yale startup developing diagnostic tests to identify patients with another pregnancy-related condition, preeclampsia.

The balanced team was crucial to her success, says Townsel.

“Both of my teammates have different knowledge and connections that I needed to transform this from an idea to a product,” Townsel says. “Dr. Campbell has the clinical and research expertise; Wendy Davis knows how to move along the path of commercialization to get my product to the end user. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

During the rigorous six-week program, Townsel says, she learned a lot about starting a business, her potential clients, and herself.

“Before Accelerate UConn, I had an idea with no knowledge or skills to advance it. I was used to talking to patients, but I had never approached people or asked for feedback in this way before,” she says. “Now I understand that I have a viable product, and I have a toolkit to move toward clinical use. I never viewed myself as an entrepreneur before, or thought this would be something I love.”

Townsel has her sights set on some important milestones in her product’s development: continuing to work on a prototype and seeking funding from internal and external sources to obtain patent protection. At the same time, she continues to treat expectant mothers and their unborn babies at UConn Health.

To date, approximately 20 teams have successfully completed the Accelerate UConn program. Applications are currently being accepted for the fall 2016 cycle, which begins in October. The deadline is Sept. 9. For more information and to access the application, go to www.accelerate.uconn.edu.

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