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January 08, 2015 | Tom Ballard

PART 3: Passion to make a difference caused Zemel to give-up “safety net”

NuSirt Biopharma(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series focused on Michael Zemel, Chief Scientific Officer of NuSirt Biopharma, a company founded on research undertaken by Zemel while he was on the faculty of the University of Tennessee {UT}. It is also part of an ongoing series spotlighting start-ups founded on technologies licensed from the UT Research Foundation.)

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

Michael Zemel, Chief Scientific Officer for NuSirt Biopharma, was a faculty member for 32 years, 22 of those at the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Knoxville campus.

“Why walk away,” he says he asked himself? He had tenure or, as he described it, a “safety net.” Being a professor also gave him the freedom to explore his ideas.

Yet, Zemel retired in 2012 to pursue his passion full-time. That passion is a start-up that he founded in 2007, now known as NuSirt Biopharma. The company’s initial intellectual property was licensed through the UT Research Foundation (UTRF).

“Everybody wants to make a difference,” he says in explaining his decision. “Having the opportunity to do so is a big deal.”

Zemel is a strong advocate for the region, and the company he founded is a good poster child for what is possible when there is collaboration.

He started the company initially in the UT Business Incubator, but relocated to the Fairview Technology Center in late 2011. NuSirt needed wet lab space that UT’s facility did not have. The company has subsequently secured additional space in the Technology Center located in a former school building.

“Fairview is the only space (locally) where you can get a life science company started inexpensively,” Zemel notes in crediting the Development Corporation of Knox County.

He’s also a strong supporter of Tech 2020, giving credit to individuals like former staffers John Morris and Geoff Robson and current consultant Shawn Carson.

Zemel is also a supporter of UTRF. “I love UTRF, and I wish they had more resources to fully develop the Life Science technology output of UT.”

As far as the region, the life-long scientist believes that much more can be done.

“We need to spin-off more life science companies,” he says, quickly adding, “With the right mentoring, we have the intellectual resources here to spinout more.”

And, in something that will be music to the ears of academic researchers, he calls for greater recognition of their work.

“You need to fully value patents in the tenure and promotion process,” Zemel says.

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