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UTRF technologies used by all three teams in this year’s “Scipreneur Challenge”

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Madison Sluter, a graduate student in pharmacology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis, captured first place in Thursday night’s first-ever statewide “Scipreneur Challenge” with a commercialization plan for advancing a novel anti-seizure compound for individuals with epilepsy.

Hosted by the Academic Alliance of the BioTN Foundation, the all-virtual event culminated a 10-week educational series that kicked-off on February 10 with what was described as Session 0 – an introduction for participants ahead of the first full session the next Thursday night where intellectual property from various research institutions in the state was discussed.

During the time between the kick-off session and the finale, the 90-minute virtual sessions started with a focus on the basics of entrepreneurship, an introduction to both design thinking and the idea discovery canvas, and a discussion about market identification and problem framing. Subsequent sessions included discussions about the all-important customer discovery process, regulatory issues, start-up finance and economics, channel and “go-to-market” strategies, and corporate formation. The last two sessions were devoted to preparation for the Thursday night pitch event.

“All participants are mostly grad students and post-docs,” said Bryan Barringer, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Christian Brothers University. He led the content component and added, “Participation week-to-week has been fantastic.”

Ironically, all three teams that pitched on Thursday built commercialization strategies around technologies that were provided by the UT Research Foundation (UTRF), and thanks to UTRF Vice President Maha Krishnamurthy for sharing summaries of the three technologies with us. Sluter’s pitch involved the work of Wei Li, a Distinguished Professor in UTHSC’s College of Pharmacy, on something called JW-65 that addresses the adverse side effects that many anti-seizure drugs cause (UTRF Epilepsy Marketing Abstract). Li also serves as director of the College of Pharmacy’s Drug Discovery Center, and Sluter noted that the research, which she described as still early stage, was recently awarded a $1.15 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The other participants and the technologies they presented were:

  • Second Place: Jennifer Zachry and Cody Marshall, both graduate students at Vanderbilt University, pitched Chronos LNP. It is the name they have chosen for a company they plan to launch around a technology (UTRF Gene Therapy Marketing Abstract) that was developed by Deidra Mountain, an Associate Professor in UTHSC’s Graduate School of Medicine in Knoxville. “Any gene therapy relies on a delivery system” Zachry told the 30 attendees, and the research of Mountain provides a new LNP (lipid nanoparticle) formulation that can be used to treat chronic diseases.
  • Third Place: Diana Sa da Bandeira, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, presented a commercialization strategy for a technology developed by Neal Stewart that utilizes synthetic biology to reinvent plant engineering (UTRF Plant Engineering Marketing Abstract). Such an approach could reduce the timeframe to generate a new variety of seeds from anywhere from seven to 13 years to three to five years. Her plan for a start-up that would be named Block Seed is to start with potatoes, launching a field trial by the end of 2022.

In announcing the winner, Ryan Hughes, BioTN Foundation’s Director of Entrepreneurship, said the deliberations by the judges “were the closest they’ve ever been, separated by a point or two.” The judges were: (1) Danielle Gore, Senior Manager of Innovation Programs at Epicenter in Memphis; (2) Bill Ganus, a Memphis entrepreneur and investor; and (3) Rohan Isaac, a Postdoctoral R&D Entrepreneurship Fellow at the University of Memphis’ FedEx Institute of Technology.

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