By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Two Tennessee Technological University (TTU) colleagues have joined with a seasoned investment banker to market a hydrogel material that would make disease identification more accurate and considerably easier.
“We have a technology to revolutionize the medical testing market,” said Holly Stretz, a TTU Professor who has considerable private sector experience including new product development for the Celanese Corporation. Her partners are Jeff Thompson, a recent TTU doctoral graduate in Chemical Engineering, and Allen Conger, an investment banker who currently resides in South Carolina but expects to move to Cookeville soon.
The trio have licensed technology from TTU and founded a company named Prometheia. Their story is, in many respects, one of a “perfect storm.”
“I stumbled onto Holly and Tennessee Tech,” Conger said during a recent interview with teknovation.biz. He’s a University of Chicago MBA graduate and former investment banker who was building high-end homes in the Charleston, SC area before the housing crash.
After reentering the investment banking field, Conger says that he was looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity with two characteristics – “defensible, disruptive IP” and an ability to “make something substantial.”
What Conger found was an academic team well-versed in hydrogel technology, a university committed to enhancing its technology transfer activities, a receptive hospital partner, and a new regional support system in The Biz Foundry, one of the state’s nine regional accelerators.
In fact, Prometheia represents TTU’s first licensing customer for the biogel effort, and Conger says the deal was structured with “very favorable terms.”
“It’s about the team,” Stretz emphasized.
A key member of the team is Thompson. While he only recently earned his doctorate, Thompson said, “I started working in hydrogels as a freshman.” A May 2012 TTU article spotlights his work and his frustrations with the traditional approach to analyzing biological samples.
Working with Stretz and Pedro Arce, Chair of the Chemical Engineering Department at TTU, over a five-year period, Thompson developed the hydrogel material that can separate thousands of proteins in a biological sample in one gel.
“The product is a consequence of the innovative focus in Chemical Engineering during the last few years,” Arce says.
Thompson, Stretz and Arce have one issued patent and two others pending.
But, as is always the case, getting a technology from the lab to the commercial sector is a key challenge. That’s where Cookeville Regional Medical Center, The Biz Foundry and Conger are important.
Stretz says Cookeville Regional is supporting testing of the hydrogel product and also work on the start-up’s next project – a lubricious catheter whose coating would make for disruption of infectious biofilms.
As part of Launch Tennessee’s regional accelerator network, The Biz Foundry has a responsibility to accelerate the “bench to the market” timeframe for high-growth companies. Prometheia is its first client that meets that criteria, so Jeff Brown and his team are helping in a variety of ways.
“We’re getting a lot of support from The Biz Foundry,” Conger says. That support is important because he believes the sector where Prometheia is focused is “more than a billion dollar market.”
For his part, Brown called-out Launch Tennessee’s Jim Stefansic for his help and support.
Conger is a fairly recent addition to the team. Stretz says that she and Thompson started talking with him in June as they realized they needed a team member with fund raising experience.
“It’s a great partnership,” she says. “Sparks are flying.”
Conger says his current goal is to raise $1 million. “We should be self-sustaining after that,” he adds.
As a life science company, the Prometheia team is mindful of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals. One strategy they are considering is an initial entry into the research sector that does not require FDA approval with the human applications coming later.