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UConn Doubling Capacity to Cultivate Business Startups

By: Chris DeFrancesco

A new construction project now underway on the UConn Health campus will double the University’s total business incubator space for the cultivation of startups throughout the state.

The $19.4 million addition to the Cell and Genome Sciences Building represents an expansion of UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP), which provides lab space and services to dozens of companies that are commercializing technology.

The project is the latest in a series of initiatives funded by Bioscience Connecticut, a nearly $1 billion package of state investments, which supports the vision of creating a regional hub that can serve as a catalyst for biomedical science and health care advancement, and the anticipated economic growth associated with it.

new incubator space in Farmington

Visualization of the new incubator space in Farmington that is now under construction. (Image by Goody Clancy)

“The incubator expansion at UConn Health is a great opportunity for Connecticut’s citizens and industry,” says Jeff Seemann, vice president for research. “This expansion provides a physical resource to capture the companies and jobs emanating from Bioscience Connecticut for the state, and ensures that opportunities rapidly develop by extending a bundle of services designed to grow and sustain them.”

The first occupants are expected to move into the new TIP space at UConn Health by December 2015. The expansion in Farmington will add 28,000 square feet for new tenants, which have the option to develop their ideas in high-tech facilities at the Farmington, Storrs, or Avery Point campuses.

“UConn’s incubator offers even greater value by providing access to unique assets and expertise that can only be found at a leading research institution,” Seemann adds.

A corridor at the new incubator space

A corridor at the new incubator space in Farmington that is now under construction. (Image by Goody Clancy)

The University provides a variety of support for the ventures, ranging from access to scientific expertise to address research and development challenges, to business planning and investor cultivation. And new startups can take advantage of the core research facilities, University library, computer network, entrepreneurial education and networking programs, and student internship programs.

Timothy Folta, faculty director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the UConn School of Business, notes that incubators provide a variety of benefits to both the startup companies and the University.

In addition to removing some of the risk and startup costs for entrepreneurs, the programs facilitate a knowledge exchange.

“There is increased evidence that geographic clusters of economic activity – think Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle – promote a spillover of knowledge, another advantage of the incubator concept,” Folta says.

Tenants of the TIP space are diverse, performing work in the physical and life sciences, and leading innovations in medical devices, informational technology, and advanced manufacturing. While many tenants are startups, existing firms also are able to join the program to pursue new opportunities or to develop partnerships with UConn faculty.

In the decade since the program began, more than two dozen businesses have been launched – reflecting a startup success rate of 60 percent – well above the national average of 25 percent.

Visualization of the library at the new incubator space in Farmington

Visualization of the library at the new incubator space in Farmington that is now under construction. (Image by Goody Clancy)

Among those are such ventures as Metrocrops, a company owned by UConn alumni and leveraging hydroponic expertise and proprietary LED lighting technology for high-density urban farming. Another TIP graduate, IMCORP, has been recognized by INC. Magazine as one of the fastest-growing engineering companies in the U.S. for six consecutive years. IMCORP built on technology developed at UConn that detects breakage in underground utility cables.

Newer ventures include biotechnology startup BIOARRAY Therapeutics Inc., which was founded in Massachusetts and moved to Connecticut. That company is developing predictive diagnostic tests, based on cancer genes, to choose the most efficacious treatment for cancer patients.

The new facility will add to UConn’s ability to serve industry that fuels the economy. In 2013 alone, the 20 companies in UConn’s incubator program employed 58 full-time and 48 part-time staff members, secured 13 patents, and had another 56 patents pending. Overall, Bioscience Connecticut construction has created more than 2,800 construction jobs, with 83 percent of the contracts going to Connecticut companies.


Tiny Heart Valve Has Big Potential for UConn Startup

By: William Weir, School of Engineering

Eric Dirois '14 Ph.D., CEO of the startup company Dura Biotech

Eric Sirois ’14 Ph.D., CEO of startup company Dura Biotech, which has developed a novel heart valve replacement. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

An unlikely combination of biomedical engineering and meticulous sewing skills has led to an innovative heart valve replacement that could save countless lives.

Its maker, Dura Biotech, is a UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) participant. Its CEO, Eric Sirois, received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at UConn earlier this year.

This summer, Sirois and his research team enjoyed a particularly eventful week, when the company received two major awards, each worth $400,000. One was from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF); the second was a federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The funding will enable the team to begin testing the product.

Since the company was founded in 2012, Dura Biotech has focused on potentially game-changing innovations in the field of heart valves. One is the LowPro Valve, a transcatheter aortic valve 40 percent smaller than anything on the market.

Because the catheter enters the femoral artery in the groin, patients don’t need to undergo open heart surgery, a procedure that takes several weeks of recovery time and can pose great risks for many patients.

Smaller is important

Catheters are traditionally measured in units known as French (one is equal to about one-third of a millimeter). Those on the market today are about 22 French.

“The next generation is about 18,” says Sirois, “and ours is 14.” And with the recent funding, part of which will pay for animal testing, Sirois is confident they can bring the size down to 12 French.

Smaller is important. It has been estimated that about 17,000 patients this year can’t have the procedure because their arteries are too small for currently available catheters.

“We’re targeting older people, but we’re thinking about using it for children, too, because many children are born with heart defects, but current valves are too large for them,” he says.

Dura Biotech team photo

The Dura Biotech team, standing, from left: Adam Guerrette ’15 (BUS), Joseph Calderan ’14 MS, Rebecca Newman ’16 (ENG), Chris Fitzpatrick ’13 (ENG), Eric Sirois ’14 Ph.D., and seated, Andrea Mandragouras ’13 (ENG), and Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG). (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

Sirois is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. While he was figuring out what he wanted to do in his civilian life, he learned that UConn had one of the leading biomedical engineering departments in the U.S. That appealed to him, and he came to the University in 2005.

“I like analyzing systems,” he says, “and I wanted to look at the body like a machine.”

During his graduate studies, he enrolled in the entrepreneur program, taught by Hadi Bozorgmanesh, professor of practice in the School of Engineering.

“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I just figured that you have to go out into industry for 15 years or so first and then come back,” Sirois says. “But Hadi has a whole different way of looking at it: ‘Don’t put off for one minute what you can start right now.’ So, we founded the company and I haven’t looked back since.”

Bozorgmanesh is confident Sirois can lead the company to success. He notes that while Sirois is “totally focused” on making Dura Biotech a success, he also spends time helping other start-ups and inspiring undergraduate students to become entrepreneurs.

Adaptive strategy

When Sirois founded Dura Biotech in 2012 with Wei Sun, a former associate professor at UConn, the original idea wasn’t to make a smaller valve, but a longer-lasting one (hence the “Dura” in the company’s name). They created the Dura Heart Valve, a valve that lasts four times longer than valves currently on the market.

Last October, Sirois and his team took the Dura Heart Valve to the biggest transcatheter conference in the U.S. The company’s poster was voted among the best, but drumming up interest in the product itself wasn’t so easy.

“We talked to the doctors – and they all didn’t care,” Sirois says. “Everyone agreed that it was indeed more durable. But they also pointed out that most of their patients are old, so the valve’s extended life span wasn’t a big draw.”

For an extra dose of discouragement, an investor told them that clinical trials specifically testing for durability take up to eight years.

“And they’re super-expensive,” Sirois says. “Instead of $7 million, it would cost about $300 million. No one’s going to invest in that. We were heartbroken, but some people suggested that if you could make it thicker and last four times as long, why not make it thinner and last the same amount of time?”

So they got to work on that. The secret is in the “crimped delivery” design, in which part of the valve’s material – the leaflet – is made thinner. With less material in the way, the valve can crimp more narrowly. A patent is pending on the technology.

Sewing up the solution

Assembling the design requires sewing together three of the valve’s main components. Considering the size of the components and the precision required, this is no easy task.

Sirois, who had learned to sew uniforms in the military, tried making the valves himself. But they are tiny, and they have to be perfect.

Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG)

Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG) works on the LowPro Valve. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

So the team hired two lab technicians, Andrea Mandragouras and Jaclyn Mazzarella, who finally, after many, many attempts, perfected the necessary sewing technique.

The change in strategy paid off. Within three months, they had a prototype, a marketing strategy, and a marketing niche carved out. They soon won a $10,000 Entrepreneur Innovation Award from CT Next, and a $50,000 Third Bridge award from the quasi-state organization Connecticut Innovation. And now, they have an additional $800,000 in recent awards.

Sirois says the company hopes to raise seed investments of $2 to $3 million next year. He estimates that the company will need at least $10 million to get his device through regulatory approval in Europe.