When the Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) program of Springfield recently awarded prize money to 12 startup companies – top achievers among 36 that successfully completed its four-month accelerator program –three were affiliated with the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) on campus. The three are:
- Genoverde Biosciences Inc., based in part on research by Sam Hazen, biology, received the top prize of $25,000 for its proposal, “Engineering trees with increased carbon dioxide (CO2) capture capabilities to combat global climate change.”
- Ernest Pharmaceuticals Inc., based on research by Neil Forbes, chemical engineering, received $12,500 for its proposal, “Programmed bacteria to treat metastatic breast cancer.”
- Lumme Inc., based on research by computer scientist Deepak Ganesan and colleagues, won $10,000 for “Cracking the code to beat addictive behavior.”
Further, Genoverde is located on the fourth floor of the Life Sciences Laboratory building and is the first startup to rent one of IALS’s collaboratory spaces.
Overall, VVM CEO Liz Roberts says, the organization awarded $150,000 in prize money at the Accelerator Awards ceremony held May 25 at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield, where about 600 people attended.
As Roberts explains, all the winners had successfully navigated VVM’s Accelerator Program, a four-month intensive weekend boot camp held each of the past three years that prepares high-potential startups for serious growth. This year’s cohort of 36 teams was selected from hundreds of applicants from around the world.
“We are proud that our applicant-blind selection process resulted in a cohort where the startups were 67 percent female-led and 53 percent people of color-led,” she adds. “This compares to an average of perhaps 23 percent female led and 20 percent led by people of color for similar programs around the nation. We’re pleased to be shifting the opportunities for these underrepresented entrepreneurs.”
Roberts says that by the end of the boot camp, the participating startups voted to select 12 finalists following a high-stakes pitch round. In late May, angel investors and venture capitalists from western Massachusetts, Greater Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and as far away as Atlanta heard the finalists’ pitches and determined who got how much of the prize money.
The winning teams have the know-how and connections to take their businesses to the next level, VVM organizers say.
In 2016, VVM startups generated more than $19 million in revenue and investments and supported 227 full-time and 613 part-time and contract jobs. Of that, $9.25 million in revenue and investments has been in the Pioneer Valley. According to Paul Silva, VVM co-founder, “The quality, depth and diversity of our participants and the industries they represent bode well for the future of opportunity in Springfield and throughout the region.”
Genoverde Biosciences’ chief science officer Sam Hazen is an associate professor of biology and part owner of the new Amherst-based startup. His research has led to higher biomass yield in grasses, and he is now investigating how this work can be translated to grow bigger trees that produce more wood. Genoverde, an agriculture biotech startup, recently partnered with UMass Amherst to optimize the technology to increase wood yield in loblolly pines for forest products. The company’s chief executive officer, Michael Harrington, has a $225,000 pilot grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program and a $50,000 NSF iCorps program grant to evaluate its commercial potential. Hazen and Harrington hope the fundamental work in grasses will lead to the company’s first product, trade-marked CO2lossal-pine trees.
Lumme Inc.’s president and computer science professor Deepak Ganesan and CEO Akshaya Shanmugam describe the company as “a UMass Amherst-based startup funded by the National Cancer Institute” to develop smart and responsible technology to help people quit smoking and stay tobacco-free. Using smartphones, they “bring personalized therapy to the palm of your hand exactly when you need it,” noting that some 28 million smokers in the U.S. today are waiting for an effective “quit program.” The platform, developed with the support of a $1.49 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, tracks behavior via a wrist band wirelessly linked to the mobile device and automatically detects triggers associated with the individual’s smoking pattern, allowing it to predict when the user is most likely to experience cravings, and helping to prevent relapse by offering personalized intervention. Smokers can keep track of their progress and get “just-in-time” treatment help, integrated with other smoking cessation products such as gum and patches.
Ernest Pharmaceuticals’ chief science officer Neil Forbes, professor of chemical engineering, has for more than a dozen years been developing non-pathogenic, genetically engineered bacteria that find and enter tumors to deliver cancer-fighting agents without causing the serious side effects of many chemotherapy treatments. The bacteria are attracted to tumors and accumulate inside them; they swim through the tumor tissues delivering genes and proteins that disrupt cancer stem cells, reduce tumor volume and help prevent the cancer from moving to other areas, metastasis, to disrupt the cancer spread, a powerful treatment mechanism. Forbes and postdoctoral researcher Nele Van Dessel say the bacteria can detect very small tumors, or areas where tumors are just developing, so this technique may treat cancer at very early stages. They hope to see the first clinical test during 2017.