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March 27, 2023 | Tom Ballard

UTRF announces new $5 million Accelerator Fund and Venture Launch Program

The new initiative involves funding allocated in two ways: dollars to derisk inventions so that companies are willing to license the technologies, and mentorship and coaching to help researchers advance the ideas.

The University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF) is launching a new combination $5 million Accelerator Fund and Venture Launch Program focused on starting, growing, and retaining sustainable start-ups in the Volunteer State.

The new initiative involves funding allocated in two ways: dollars to derisk inventions so that companies are willing to license the technologies and mentorship and coaching to help researchers advance the ideas.

The UT System provided the initial $5 million for the fund, which UT System President Randy Boyd authorized on March 1.

“UT already changes lives through the research and ideas its innovators produce,” said Boyd. “Now, through the Venture Launch Program and the Accelerator Fund, we’ll help our researchers and innovators move more ideas into the world. I’m truly excited to see ideas come to fruition that will help make this the greatest decade and beyond for UT and Tennessee.”

Pending approval by the UTRF Board of Directors on May 3, the fund will be available beginning July 1. Applications can be submitted now on the Launch Program and Accelerator Fund website.

“UT is a powerhouse of innovation,” says Maha Krishnamurthy, UTRF’s President. “Tennessee has a growing, tech-based economy, but industry wants our inventions derisked. What is really needed is mentorship for coaching our talented researchers and evaluating their technologies.”

Krishnamurthy is a long-time player in the technology transfer community. After several years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, she joined UTRF in 2011 as a Licensing Associate. Three years later, she was named Assistant Vice President of Licensing, promoted to Vice President in 2018 and named UTRF President in January 2023.

The newly announced initiative has been a passion and a priority of hers for several years.

“We have 299 active technology licenses and 45 active start-ups,” Krishnamurthy says. “Fifty percent of our patent portfolio has been licensed. Innovation is everywhere across the university.”

Asking the question of ‘how do we grow more start-ups around UT inventions,’ she cites a hockey analogy. “We need more shots on goal,” and the new funding will make that possible. “It’s about transforming promising innovations into viable and sustainable business ventures.”

Krishnamurthy cites a similar program at the University of Michigan (U-M) which is ranked as #16 among public and private universities for its commercialization success, according to a recent report from Heartland Forward. Housed within the Office of the Vice President for Research, the U-M Innovation Partnerships program serves as the primary gateway for researchers seeking to increase the impact of their work.

According to its website, the U-M program connects faculty with the private sector through corporate-sponsored research collaborations, licensing discussions, or connections with entrepreneurs and investors to support startup company formation. The team of licensing, business development, and investment professionals provides comprehensive step-by-step service to faculty starting with invention assessment and intellectual property support, followed by business mentoring, and connections to early-stage capital from the Accelerate Blue Fund.

Krishnamurthy says the fund will typically make investments of $20,000 to $100,000 in advancing a technology or in a start-up that is a UTRF licensee. The maximum would be $150,000. It will operate as an evergreen fund. That means that, after an exit or other liquidity event by the start-up receiving funding, the resulting proceeds will be returned to the fund for future investments.

“Our goal is to ensure founders of UTRF-related start-ups have the team, traction, market size, and funds for success,” Krishnamurthy says.

The UTRF news release can be found here.

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