The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

After Eureka

UMass Scientists Turn Revolutionary Ideas Into Businesses
  • UMass Amherst Innovators: Peter Reinhart, Jun Yao, Trisha Andrew, and Derek Lovely.

“I’ve changed my way of thinking and now I can’t help but consider ways to market the work we do in the lab.” -Samuel P. Hazen, Biology

Starting a business is terrifying, to be frank, said Morgan Baima '18PhD, just after incorporating the UMass startup company Soliyarn. Scary though it may seem, Baima and other UMass scientists can be bold in their entrepreneurial efforts—the UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) has their backs. IALS was launched in 2015 to help turn scientific discoveries into marketable products that improve human health and well-being.

IALS works in step with the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at the Isenberg School of Management, with the office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement through its Office of Technology Transfer and the UMass Innovation Institute, and other entities to fortify the campus start-up culture. The interdisciplinary institute includes 250 faculty from 28 academic departments and manages unique resources. These include state-of-the-art equipment organized into core facilities accessible to academic labs and industry alike, interdisciplinary lab space organized into research themes that allow faculty from different departments and even from different colleges to work close together, and lab space for start-up companies. Faculty, students, industry leaders, and entrepreneurs mingle in the institute’s conference spaces. To operate IALS, the university contributed more than $60 million in capital funds and operational support. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts itself is behind IALS, having invested $95 million through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

Peter Reinhart, the founding director of IALS, is the man charged with firing up the entrepreneurial spirit on campus. He sees himself as a matchmaker. “Can we get people together who ordinarily would not talk to each other and help them do amazing things?” he asks.

Some professors need a nudge to try commercializing their ideas. “It’s not something that appealed to me,” says plant geneticist Samuel P. Hazen, associate professor of biology. But Hazen has found the process of launching Genoverde Biosciences, of which he is chief scientific officer, a lot of fun. “I’ve changed my way of thinking and now I can’t help but consider ways to market the work we do in the lab,” he says.

Once IALS gets microbiologists talking to engineers talking to computer scientists, nurses, and financiers, the institute supports their entrepreneurial goals with training, mentoring, and funding. Scientists quickly accept that there is no formula for turning an idea into a business; budding entrepreneurs have to hug uncertainty. “Starting a business is a working hypothesis,” says Alexander Smith ’17, a PhD student in biomedical engineering and president of the startup e-Biologics. “I’ve got my ideas about what could work and it will keep on changing.”

The three emerging companies profiled here—e-Biologics, Soliyarn, and Genoverde—benefitted from IALS start-up funds, inspiration, advice, and collaborative space. According to Reinhart, they all have the two key things it takes to successfully propel a project from a glint in the eye to a valuable new company developing real-world product candidates: a killer idea and the passion to develop it.  “You have to be able to say, ‘I believe in this, I’m going to make it mine and I’m going to run with it as hard as I can,’ ” he says. “Nothing else comes close in importance.”

E-BIOLOGICS

Making skin sensor patches to measure pH and glucose using protein nanowires.

Just before last year’s Thanksgiving break, Alexander Smith ’17, sent an email out of the blue to Derek Lovley, Distinguished University Professor of Microbiology. Smith, a first-year PhD student in mechanical and industrial engineering and Shark Tank fan, had read about Lovley’s groundbreaking research in microbial nanowires and, having an entrepreneurial bent, hoped to talk to the professor about potential commercial applications of the technology. 

Lovley, one of the campus’s most accomplished researchers, regularly on the list of the world’s most frequently cited scientists, agreed to meet with the 22-year-old student. Five months later, their fledgling company, e-Biologics, won the top prize in the UMass Innovation Challenge, the campus’s premier start-up competition, run by the Berthiaume Center. The e-Biologics team of Smith, Lovley, Jun Yao, assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering, and advisor Peter Reinhart of IALS, was off to a red-hot start. 

The products of e-Biologics will be developed using bacteria called Geobacter, which Lovley discovered in 1987. In recent years, Lovley and his colleagues have found they could use Geobacter and other microbes to make protein nanowires with remarkable powers of electrical conductivity—heralding the start of a green electronics revolution. One of the first ways protein nanowires may be put to work is to electrically measure biomarkers in bodily fluids with higher sensitivity than synthetic materials.

“I love the Geobacter,” says Smith, with requisite entrepreneurial fervor. “Dr. Lovley’s research is really beautiful; it needs to be applied.”

At first, Smith pitched the broad applications of e-Biologics technology: protein nanowire sensors have the potential to provide early detection of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, among others. But along the start-up path, he determined a better way to get funding was to zero in on a single, marketable application. He focused on a skin sensor patch, worn like a Band-aid, that measures pH and glucose for the early detection of diabetic ketoacidosis, a common complication of Type 1 diabetes. “Entrepreneurs need to pivot,” Smith says, citing the canny business advice of his mentor Peter Reinhart and of MBA student Brian McCarthy ’17.  McCarthy is part of the IALS Business Innovation Fellow program at UMass, which provides mentoring, networking, and guidance from MBA students and regional business leaders to science entrepreneurs.

After victory at the Innovation Challenge, Smith dedicated summer 2018 to e-Biologics. He took part in the Berthiaume Center Summer Accelerator, a crash course that helps student and faculty entrepreneurs launch UMass ventures, and spent time in the lab learning how to make and use protein nanowire devices. The next major steps for e-Biologics include incorporating, making prototypes, and getting commercial-grade patents.

“I want to work with science that will benefit society,” Smith says. He adds that Reinhart has encouraged him to think big: “It’s contagious, and good for a start-up.”

For his part, Lovley is pleased to see his research on its way to becoming a product. “It’s interesting to do basic science,” he says, “but also rewarding to see an application take shape. This wasn’t something I imagined when we started flopping around in the mud researching Geobacter.”

GENOVERDE

Using bioengineering to grow denser trees for paper, lumber, and fuel.

After many years as a student and scientist, intensive entrepreneurial training, and a couple of years starting up Genoverde Biosciences, one of the most critical things Michael J. Harrington has learned is the value of summing up his company’s first product in the fewest words possible. He’s got it down to six: “We’re growing bigger, faster, stronger trees,” he says.

The trees are bioengineered loblolly pines, and they are expected to grow to be a full 20 percent denser than ordinary trees, making them attractive to farmers who grow them for paper, lumber, and fuel. The denser trees will also sequester more carbon dioxide from the air, helping to reduce global warming. The beauty of the company’s product, explains Harrington, is its simplicity. Genoverde’s trees use carbon dioxide more efficiently; they require no additional land, fertilizer, or water to achieve their dense growth.

The technology for the trees comes from the lab of UMass Amherst plant geneticist Samuel P. Hazen, an outgrowth of his years of research into biofuels, funded mostly by the U. S. Department of Energy’s Biological and Environmental Research program. The lab used gene technology, adapted from its work with grasses, to increase the trees’ cell wall growth.

With the help of IALS, Hazen and Harrington, who worked as a senior research biologist in the Hazen lab, formed Genoverde to further develop the plant technology and bring the trees and, eventually, other crops, to market. As the company’s chairman and CEO, Harrington takes the business lead and oversees daily research activities, while Hazen serves as Genoverde’s chief scientific officer. A third founder, Todd Michael of the J. Craig Venter Institute, is chief technology officer.

Harrington had strong support in his pivot from science to business: he participated in the CleanTech cohort of the ASPIRE Program operated by VentureWell, a nonprofit that supports innovators and entrepreneurs; Valley Venture Mentors, an entrepreneurial boot camp in Springfield, Massachusetts; and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Innovation Corps program. In 2016, a $225,000 grant from the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research Program gave Genoverde another significant boost. 

After working in Hazen’s lab and then materials testing in the IALS collaboratory space in the Life Sciences Laboratories, Harrington is now based in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is working with landowners to get trees in the ground. “I’m applying science to industry,” he says, “I bring the scientific approach that I learned while getting my PhD to entrepreneurship. To me there are many similarities between a question like ‘How do you make a plant grow faster and bigger?’ and the question, ‘How do you make your business grow faster and bigger?’” 

On September 13, in Raleigh the day before Hurricane Florence hit the south, Harrington heard, after months of waiting, that Genoverde was awarded a second NSF small business grant—for $750,000. He took a break from his hurricane preparation to text Hazen back in Amherst with the good news. “This means we can hire more people and really get going,” said Hazen. Harrington said, “The money will be used to grow our operations in North Carolina as we continue to develop and test our trees.”

Harrington added, “I came through the storm just fine. Being here in North Carolina, seeing the hurricane and its aftermath firsthand, allows me to better understand the problems of our customers—the farmers—and think about what we can do at Genoverde to make things better for them.”

SOLIYARN

Manufacturing electrically heated textiles that are lightweight, flexible, and washable.

They click. Professor of Chemistry Trisha Andrew and Morgan Baima ’18PhD both like to think the IALS way—with a practical eye on scientific problems. “It’s what drew me to her lab,” says Baima. “She likes applicable solutions, and so do I.”

Baima made the move with Andrew from the University of Wisconsin, where she had earned a master’s degree in materials science and engineering, to the University of Massachusetts in 2014. Now, having earned her PhD in chemistry at UMass, she’s taking another leap with Andrew: she’s the CEO of a company they formed to merge technology and textiles—Soliyarn. “It’s a brand-new world for me,” says Baima.

Soliyarn’s first product will be an innovation that’s gotten lots of attention, including from Nike, Under Armour, and U.S. military special operations: electrically heated garments, starting with gloves made from ordinary fabric coated with super-thin conductive polymers via a process developed in Andrew’s UMass lab. The gloves are powered by a tiny battery and are lightweight, flexible, and washable. “It’s a simple and useful application for our new technology,” says Andrew.

Andrew and Baima predict that the buyers of their heated gloves and other garments will include motorcyclists, winter athletes, and outdoor workers, and they foresee further mergers of tech and textiles. “You could give me a T-shirt,” Andrew says, “and we could paint an electronically active pattern on it with our coating that could tell you your heart rate, measure your blood sugar, or store a charge.” Or, she says, Soliyarn could make a high-fashion gown that heats up, generates power as its skirt swirls, and stores power, too. One day, you will be able to sew or knit all kinds of electronic devices using coated threads. How about a car seat? Or a baby bottle warmer? A curtain that harvests solar energy?

Like e-Biologics, Soliyarn is moving fast, boosted by seed money from IALS and guidance from IALS Business Innovation Fellow Emily Wilson, an MBA student. Andrew published her groundbreaking research on electrically heated textiles in September 2017. Soliyarn was incorporated in January 2018. Baima defended her PhD dissertation in June 2018 and moved to Boston within the week to start intensive entrepreneurial training at the prestigious MassChallenge start-up accelerator.

The top priority for the new company will be funding. “We’re equipment heavy on the front end, but once we have the money to build the chambers we need to put the conductive coating down, we’re good to go, and we can manufacture garments cheaply,” Andrew explains. “Our operational costs will be low: the coating is a few microns thick—one-hundredth the width of a human hair—and the polymers are cheap.”

Chasing their shared goal, the partners continue to click: “Trisha is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” says Baima. “I really believe in our tech and I think it’s going to be influential in the coming years.”

“I’m enjoying the business end,” says Andrew, “but I wouldn’t want to do it exclusively. Morgan wants to pave the way. I’m happy to say to her, ‘You be the CEO.’”

Patricia Sullivan

Reprinted from UMass Amherst Magazine Fall 2018

At top of page, UMass innovators, from left: Peter Reinhart of IALS, Jun Yao of e-Biologics, Trisha Andrew of Soliyarn, Derek Lovley of e-Biologics. Photo by John Solem.