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November 19, 2014 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Founding a company was not on the radar for these researchers

Solex(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series on Solex, LLC, a start-up founded on technologies licensed from the University of Tennessee Research Foundation {UTRF}. It is part of our continuing series profiling companies founded on UTRF inventions.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

The founders of Solex, LLC had no intention of founding a company until one of their graduate students enrolled in an entrepreneurial course taught by Fred Tompkins.

“Emily Martin, my grad student, was taking his course and one of her projects was to come back to him with something from the lab that they could turn into an entrepreneurial project,” Jonathan Wall, Chief Executive Officer, said. “We then convinced ourselves it (founding a start-up) was the best way to go, so we licensed back our technology and started the company.”

It’s been a rollercoaster over the ensuing three years for what Wall describes as a virtual company focused on developing a way to diagnose amyloidosis. It is a difficult disease to diagnose and, once diagnosed, the median survival rate of patients is only four years.

A better and faster diagnosis is something the researchers at the University of Tennessee Medical Center have been pursuing for years. An earlier version of an imaging technology was licensed by Amgen but was never developed.

After forming Solex, the researchers turned business people needed to determine how to finance the venture.

“We decided to go after SBIRs,” Wall said in reference to the federal Small Business Innovation Research grants. Unfortunately, it takes two to tango, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was not receptive.

“They cited the ROI, telling us there were not enough new cases each year,” he explained. In the U.S., there are about 3,000 new cases of amyloidosis diagnosed each year.

“They did not consider it to be a viable market,” Wall added.

After trying twice to win SBIRs from NIH and failing both times, Solex tried two other grant applications on related technologies, one each for melanoma and Alzheimer’s, a disease that frequently occurs in conjunction with amyloidosis. The team was again unsuccessful.

The market size also made their technology not particularly interesting to big pharma companies. In addition, Solex has not had funding to launch the always critical clinical trial process.

“We found ourselves in the valley of death,” Wall said. He’s now considering either partnering with a drug company on clinical trials or sub-licensing the technology.

There is some good news. The U.S. Patent Office recently issued a patent for four peptides that support the Solex approach that creates a synthetic peptide radiotracer. It is, in turn, used with Positron Emission Tomography/Computed Tomography (PET/CT) imaging devices to facilitate a non-invasive, whole-body visualization of the amyloid burden in patients.

Today, Wall notes the clock is ticking.

“We have three years until the first maintenance payment is due on the patent,” he explains. “We have to keep it alive and show that it works.”

Meanwhile, the research team continues to focus on the science, submitting an average of three invention disclosures a year.

In spite of the obstacles, Wall says, “It’s been a lot of fun. My goal is to see the idea proven, not necessarily to make money.”

Those stricken with the disease no doubt enthusiastically endorse Wall’s goal.

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