Thursday, December 20, 2007

Local investor group aims to market UA tech ideas

[Source: Jack Gillum, ARIZONA DAILY STAR] - If Alicia Reeves and Olin Feuerbacher have their way, testing time for dangerous E. coli bacteria would be cut to a fraction of what it takes now.

The duo hope to move that vision closer to reality with backing from a new group of local investors created to help bring University of Arizona technologies to market.

Reeves' and Feuerbacher's company, Innovis Technologies, is developing its E. coli test based on research performed at the UA. It was one of three biotech groups that presented their technologies on Oct. 8 at the inaugural meeting of Desert Tech Investors LLC.

Desert Tech, which has about 45 members, has entered into an alliance with the UA via the Arizona Enterprise Program. The UA's Office of Technology Transfer is working with Desert Tech to invest $400,000 in research on UA innovations with "high commercial potential," the UA said.

The group's president, Jerry Sonenblick, and its executive vice president, Bob Morrison, are members of the Desert Angels. That local group is made up of so-called "angel" investors — people with a qualifying level of wealth who invest individually in startup companies — although the two groups are not connected.

The Desert Tech program "is a rare, and very possibly unique, mechanism for a university to formally match the interests and expertise of local angel investors with those of a university and its individual researchers," said Stephen ONeil of the Technology Transfer Office. The university and the investor group will work "transparently within university policies regarding intellectual property and conflict of interest," he said.

Such a public-private partnership can combine investors with the "educational, technical knowledge" of professors to encourage successful biotech companies, Sonenblick said.

"When the light bulb goes off in a university professor's head," Sonenblick said, Desert Tech "will have the first look at contributing capital, person power and mentoring advice toward achieving proof of concept."

"This is the embryo stage of technological development," he said.

Innovis, like the other ideas showcased, is at that formative stage, and its technology is timely. The process of detecting E. coli — which can cause potentially fatal illness and has been blamed for sickness and millions of dollars in product losses recently — can take 24 to 48 hours.

But if Innovis' product is successful, companies can sniff out trouble in as little as 10 minutes.

The Innovis idea, developed by UA chemist Dr. Indraneel Ghosh, uses a technology known as sequence enabled reassembly to detect E. coli at the DNA level using specialized zinc "fingerprints." Reeves and Feuerbacher worked together at the UA through the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program.

It would be "as easy as reading a color pregnancy test," Feuerbacher, Innovis' chief scientific officer, said during a recent demonstration.

Other projects presented at Desert Tech's first meeting include:

● A simple defibrillator, or electrical heart stimulator, that uses AC power and would be cheaper to manufacture than existing over-the-counter models. Project head Dr. M. Reza Movahed, a UA cardiologist, said current automatic external defibrillators are costly to make because of their specialized lithium batteries.

● Nasser Peyghambarian, a professor in the UA College of Optical Sciences who already has commercialized several products, plans to develop a new kind of low-power, fiber-optic laser.

Desert Tech plans to meet next on Nov. 28, when the group will vote on whether to proceed with one of the companies that gave a presentation in October, as well as another that will present in November.

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