Bringing Revolutionary Breakthroughs Out into the World
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a lab by Sloan Siegrist, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, specializes in researching the bacterium that causes tuberculosis—specifically, developing small molecules that target the cell surface for therapeutic purposes.
While conducting this research, Siegrist and her associates conceived of a different potential application for these small molecules: They could be used to detect bacterial growth more quickly than current diagnostic methods, at the single-cell level.
With some pilot data in hand, Siegrist and Emily Melzer, a PhD student in her lab at the time, applied for a Manning/IALS Innovation Award to develop a quick and accurate test to detect sepsis and give a rapid readout of antibiotic susceptibility to enable better prescribing decisions and support antibiotic stewardship. Such a tool, they believed, could help save lives, shorten hospital stays, contain hospital costs, and mitigate antibiotic resistance.
Their project wasn’t selected the first year they applied but, in 2020, they received seed funding in the second round to advance their applied research. This funding enabled them to hire a post-doc to work on the project full time, and they were off to the races.
Latde Diagnostics was soon incorporated, with Siegrist and Melzer as co-founders. The startup received additional funding, including an Acorn Innovation grant and an OTCV grant from the UMass System Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures (OTCV), both in 2021. Most recently, the Maroon Venture Partners Fund invested in Latde Diagnostics.
Along the way, Siegrist and Melzer received guidance from various resources at UMass Amherst—on topics ranging from incorporating the business to applying for a patent to developing a product concept. Burnley Jaklevic, director of the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) facilitated a UMass patent application to protect the technology and pointed them toward funding opportunities. Karen Utgoff, who leads both the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) Venture Development and National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site programs, met with them regularly to provide mentoring and a team of MBA Fellows to help with the business concept. (In the photo at the top of the story, Siegrist, center, is shown meeting with Jaklevic, left, and Utgoff, right). Melzer participated in the spring 2020 UMass Amherst I-Corps, and the 2022 NSF I-Corps National Teams program, where she interviewed over 100 potential users of Latde’s technology to understand their unmet needs.
“I-Corps helped us map out stakeholders, influencers, potential saboteurs, and, basically, who we would need to convince to buy our product for it to be successful and what problems we could realistically help solve,” said Melzer. “Even though our I-Corps cohort is over, I still make sure to check in with potential customers and run ideas by them to make sure we’re on the right track.”
We really offer a holistic approach to venture development at UMass. It takes a village.
Latde Diagnostics recently hired two employees and is working to develop strong proof of concept in order to attract additional investment.
“While our initial focus is on creating a better diagnostic tool for sepsis,” said Siegrist, "We are developing a platform technology that could eventually expand to a broad range of applications.” Today, Melzer, who received her PhD in 2021, serves as CEO of Latde Diagnostics, running the day-to-day business, while Siegrist is the acting chief science officer and plays an advisory role.
Their story is just one of many. Across the UMass Amherst campus, faculty and students are conducting groundbreaking research with important real-world applications—from advancing precision medicine to developing powerful machine learning algorithms to mitigating the effects of climate change. Yet bringing these potentially world-changing breakthroughs out into the world is anything but simple.
That is why UMass offers a range of resources to help researchers take inventions and discoveries from ideation through the process of commercialization and, eventually, to market. This campus innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem includes many linked organizations, programs, and services that work together in close partnership and cross-refer to help researchers find the support they need along the way. In fact, many of the most successful ventures take advantage of several different resources on campus, said Utgoff.
“We really offer a holistic approach to venture development at UMass,” said Utgoff. “It takes a village.”
From Idea to Impact
While academics typically are familiar with applying for basic research grants to support new discoveries and expand fundamental knowledge in their fields, a startup to translate those discoveries into solutions that address real-world problems requires them to become acquainted with an entirely different culture and skill set.
“I have had to learn more new skills than I ever would have imagined,” said Melzer. "I think embracing that is important—trying to enjoy the chance to learn something that is probably way different from what you were trained to do.”
UMass’s innovation and entrepreneurship resources support researchers throughout the earliest stages of the venture development process, with the aim of getting them through the “valley of death” when they no longer qualify for basic research funding but still are not developed enough to attract investors. For Latde, this has meant help establishing intellectual property, determining the customer base, analyzing the competitive landscape, developing a business plan and compelling pitch decks, introductions to expand a founder’s network, funding, and—in the case of IALS Venture Development— providing a virtual team.
As Melzer put it, starting a business “can be quite the emotional roller coaster, and without a supportive team, I could see that being harder than it needs to be. You want someone to celebrate the highs with, commiserate with during the lows, and just generally feel like they have your back.”
In addition, networking with others on and off campus, is an important focus throughout the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.
“One of the wonderful things about the startup world is that people are very generous,” Utgoff added. “Often, people are happy to give an interesting company an hour of their time, and offer ideas or introductions.”
Closing the Gap
As a post-doctoral researcher at UMass Amherst’s Department of Food Science, Minqi Wang ’16PhD found herself in search of opportunities to commercialize the food science technologies she was working on in the lab. But with no business background, she quickly realized “the gap between the mindsets of doing research and business.”
Wang immersed herself in UMass’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, where she developed her entrepreneurial skillset and made productive connections. In 2019, she participated in the UMass and national I-Corps programs. Later that year and into 2020, she took part in the Collegiate Summer Venture Program (CSVP) co-hosted by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, Valley Venture Mentors, and the Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative. Also in 2020, she received Manning/IALS funding to advance her research. Wang went on to win first place in the Berthiaume Center’s Innovation Challenge in 2021. Together with her research advisor, Distinguished Professor D. Julian McClements, she founded Ideation Foods Inc., a food ingredient innovation company dedicated to enhancing the stability of functional ingredients and improving the physiochemical properties of food, beverage, and supplemental products. The business is now applying for federal grants as well as private funds and is working on a project to improve the stability of probiotics in supplements, as well as an application in alternative proteins, which are derived from plants, fermentation, and cultivated meat. Wang has been working with a team of IALS Business Innovation Fellows since 2021.
In Wang’s experience, the most important startup skills she learned related to communication: polishing her speaking skills to various audiences and learning to listen and understand the other party. In the asymmetric negotiations between startup founders and potential funders, she also developed judgment in disclosing information and in selecting the right partner.
Above all, she learned the importance of tenacity. “All ventures will deal with failure at some point in their development, but those who repeatedly try will usually succeed in the end.”
In addition to Ideation Foods and Latde, at least 20 pre-startups and startups based on inventions from UMass research labs are currently brewing. Explore some of the key UMass resources to support innovation and entrepreneurship below:
Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship
Established in 2014 with a gift from Diana and Doug Berthiaume, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship promotes entrepreneurship and innovation at UMass Amherst and throughout the region and Commonwealth. It serves students, staff, faculty, and alumni of the past decade across all schools and colleges at UMass.
The center offers weekly start-up boot camps and several seminars each semester. It also hosts a yearly signature series of pitch competitions in which teams of students, faculty, and recent alumni present ventures with a focus on customer base, scientific and technological design, and a compelling business strategy. Successful teams win equity-free funding and access to coaching and mentoring. Some teams opt to compete in the spring semester’s Innovation Challenge, where $65,000 is awarded to finalists.
The center’s work extends beyond the UMass campus through its Collegiate Summer Venture Program, hosted in partnership with Valley Venture Mentors and the Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative. This intensive program supports and accelerates the work of student entrepreneurs at UMass Amherst and 13 other colleges in the Pioneer Valley.
“The Berthiaume Center’s mission is to promote an entrepreneurial mindset in all our students, regardless of their field of study,” said executive director Gregory Thomas. “We know that gaining experience with entrepreneurship early in life helps students develop skills in problem-solving, idea generation, design thinking, and creativity. It teaches them to collaborate effectively with people who approach problems differently, and not to be afraid to reach out to others for help with an idea.”
I-Corps @ UMass Amherst (National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Site Program)
Since 2018, UMass has been home to an NSF I-Corps site. Through the I-Corps program, NSF awards funding to select universities to train STEM faculty and students in early-stage technology commercialization. Though it may be five or even 10 years before these innovations are ready to take to market, the I-Corps program gives researchers an edge as they work to develop products and services that people want and need.
The three-part program begins with an introduction to university-based innovation, technology commercialization, and the Lean Startup methodology. Next, participants take part in the Innovator’s Jump-Start, gaining hands-on experience in customer discovery, using the scientific method applied to technology commercialization. Here, participants learn how to understand customer needs, test their assumptions, and pivot based on lessons learned. Finally, in the third part, the Innovator’s Rev-Up, participants conduct 20 more interviews to deepen their understanding of customer needs.
The goal of the site program, Utgoff explained, is to prepare teams for the intensive national I-Corps program. Funding is available for travel support.
IALS Venture Development
The Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) is dedicated to translating fundamental research into innovative product candidates, technologies, and services to benefit human health and well-being. IALS Venture Development supports that mission by helping UMass researchers create new ventures that have the potential to realize those goals as well as to contribute to economic development. Led by Utgoff, a cadre of MBA fellows from the Isenberg School of Management work in small teams to provide support tailored to the needs of each startup.
“We work with them on key business concerns such as who early customers might be, market size, potential competitive advantages, business models, and funding opportunities beyond campus,” said Utgoff. “We also help them write pitch decks and prepare to talk to investors. Our aim is to enable a researcher to go from an initial idea to starting a company based upon their research.”
Located in the Life Science Laboratories (LSL) on the UMass Amherst campus, the IALS Collaboratories research lab space is adjacent to the state-of-the-art Core Facilities. These 16 shared spaces are available to companies ranging from startups—either developed at UMass or external—to more established companies. Advantages include an IP free zone; maintenance of permits for all lab operations; Environmental Health and Safety training and compliance for all lab users; maintenance of equipment and technical support; cleaning and waste removal; access to IALS-hosted, innovation-focused programming; and access to world-class researchers on the UMass Amherst campus.
Technology Transfer Office
The Technology Transfer Office’s (TTO) mission is to bring the fruits of UMass research and creative activity to the public through support for campus innovators and researchers. The TTO works closely with campus innovators and researchers to protect intellectual property created on campus by seeking patents on inventions and copyrights on creative works. The TTO team also pursues industry partners interested in commercializing and enters into licensing agreements that give companies the right to make and sell the patented products—enabling innovations to be developed into products and services that benefit society.
The TTO collaborates with internal and external partners to support entrepreneurs looking to start new companies based on UMass Amherst inventions and advises on a wide variety of intellectual property matters.
Manning/IALS Innovation Program
The Manning/IALS Innovation Program provides grants of up to $100,000 to advance applied research and development efforts from UMass-based faculty research groups in the sciences and engineering through the development of spin-out/startup companies and the out-licensing of UMass intellectual property. Between 2019 and 2021, 17 projects were funded spanning therapeutics, diagnostics, electronics, and cleantech.
Originally established in 2019 with $1 million in seed funding from alumnus Paul Manning ’77 and his wife, Diane, the program was expanded in February 2022, thanks to a $3 million commitment from the Manning Family Foundation.
UMass Amherst Libraries
The UMass Libraries are home to numerous resources of value to UMass Amherst startup ventures, including an officially designated Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC), one of only two in Massachusetts and about 80 in the entire country. Located in the Science & Engineering Library, it is led by a trained librarian, who provides assistance and education around conducting patent and trademark searches. The Libraries also have a business reference librarian and databases with information about funding sources and market statistics, as well as other information needed for startup plans.
Research Compliance helps faculty navigate any regulatory or ethical concerns that may arise when they are involved in a startup, spin-off, or other commercial activity related to their research. This includes ensuring regulatory compliance related to, for example, export controls or sharing of information with industry partners.
According to Jennifer Donais, assistant vice chancellor for Compliance and Support Services, the office’s primary role in this arena is helping faculty manage the inherent conflict of interest that arises when they pursue an outside commercial interest related to their research.
“We work with faculty to document the facts and circumstance of their situation and the nexus of conflict, and outline actions to mitigate that conflict,” said Donais. They help put together a written case summary, which is presented to a five-campus Conflicts Board that reviews and makes a determination about the case. Ultimately, this process protects faculty members to avoid any conflict of interest or appearance thereof.
UMass Innovation Institute and Mount Ida
Established about 10 years ago, the UMass Innovation Institute (UMII) serves as a one-stop shop for collaborations between UMass researchers and industry partners. Each year, UMII supports approximately 200 industry-backed research projects with companies large and small. Current partnerships include Google, Motif FoodWorks , Ocean Spray, Bose Corporation, BASF, and DuPont.
“We’re part of the process from the very beginning, supporting researchers from concept to commercialization and promoting a seamless experience,” said UMII director Kathryn Ellis. “We offer guidance on developing contracts and ensure that researchers receive proper IP protection and are able to publish their work.”
The Mount Ida Campus in Newton was established by UMass and UMII to connect companies in the greater Boston area with UMass Amherst’s robust research capabilities. The facilities include more than 25,000 square feet of co-working space, including lab space with state-of-the-art equipment, for research collaborations with industry. In addition, the campus offers UMass students a live-learn-work experience with access to numerous internships, co-ops and practicums in nearby Boston, and an extensive alumni network. According to Ellis, the Mount Ida campus is open to all departments at the university, and she hopes to see its use expanded in the coming years.
This story was originally published in August 2022.