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VCU’s new Startup Accelerator will propel university research that has market potential

After years of supporting startups that license inventions created by university researchers, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation has launched its first formal Startup Accelerator program.

“Our accelerator will fast-track our VCU-borne companies, giving them more personalized coaching and advisory services from our lineup of entrepreneur experts-in-residence,” said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation. “Innovation is taking place at a rapid pace at VCU, and this program will further raise our national visibility and continue to position Central Virginia as a key American technological hub.”

VCU is the 47th-ranked public research university in the U.S., as reported by the National Science Foundation. VCU’s $406.9 million in research expenditures for 2022 represents a 12% increase over the year prior, when the university reached the $400 million expenditure mark for the first time. The university’s sponsored research funding for fiscal year 2023 was $464 million, representing a 71% increase over the past five years.

For VCU faculty researchers, the accelerator is designed to put startups on formal timelines and hit targeted goals. The program includes meetings with advisors and entrepreneurs-in-residence, development of a customized business strategy and help with applications for funding. It culminates with a springtime pitch event that will award cash prizes and additional support to winners.

The accelerator is led by the VCU TechTransfer and Ventures team, which is responsible for protecting university-generated intellectual property and facilitating its commercialization. Last year, TechTransfer and Ventures issued 26 patents, filed 165 new patents, executed 29 licenses and brought in $3 million in licensing revenue. It also granted 12 licenses to startups.

TechTransfer has been responsible for supporting formation and development of startups based on VCU-owned IP since August 2021. Since that time, the office has established a program providing startups with coaching, entrepreneur-in-residence support and expert advisory support from the office’s licensing managers.

“Now is a perfect time to launch our accelerator program to help researchers to get their ideas out of the lab and into the hands of users, address their highest-priority business needs, reduce the risk of failure and increase the probability of success,” said Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., assistant vice president for innovation at TechTransfer and Ventures. The program also benefits researchers by connecting them to outside resources such as investors and consultants, she said.

TechTransfer expects to offer a spring and fall accelerator program, with hopes that it will encourage other faculty who may have startup dreams to take the next step — even if they’re unsure about the process.

“Faculty researchers may be experts in their field of study, and they want to take their ideas forward but are unfamiliar with how to do so,” Rao said. “The VCU Startup Accelerator gives proper mentoring to our research community and surrounds them with entrepreneurs who have walked this path before, to help overcome those challenges and put them on a path to success.”

One of the accelerator collaborators is Activation Capital, an independent authority of the state of Virginia that is promoting scientific research, commercialization and ecosystem development in the Richmond region. Chandra Briggman, Activation Capital’s president and CEO, said the organization will provide program support and back the researcher-entrepreneurs with resources they need.

“Our plan is to create a continuum of support for VCU researchers so that we can have a platform for moving things from idea to market,” she said.

Briggman noted that VCU is designated as an “R1” institution, in recognition of its high research activity, by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. “VCU is a research powerhouse, and growing. The top of the funnel for research and innovation is what’s happening at research universities. By supporting VCU research, we support the entire region,” Briggman said.

The pilot VCU Startup Accelerator cohort includes the following five groups — some established companies, and others with projects on track to create a formal business.

SurgicalED VR

What it is: A virtual reality platform incorporating haptic feedback for training surgeons to perform complex “blind” procedures. The platform provides surgeons with safe, effective and cost-efficient repetitive training without using cadavers or practicing on patients, and it provides documentation on their procedural proficiency. The team’s lead product, SlingVR, trains surgeons to perform a complex urogynecologic procedure.

Researchers: Lauren Siff, M.D., chief of gynecologic surgery and urogynecology at the Central Virginia VA Health Care System and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Department of Surgery at the VCU School of Medicine. The team also includes: L. Franklin Bost, professor emeritus in biomedical engineering innovation and development at the VCU Institute for Engineering and Medicine; James Thomas, Ph.D., director of the Launching Excellence in Virtual Reality Center and professor in the Department of Physical Therapy; Moshe Feldman, Ph.D., director of evaluation for undergraduate medical education and human factors and associate professor at the School of Medicine; and Jerome Dixon, data analyst and VCU Ph.D. candidate.

Novel Machine Learning Protocol for Diagnostic Health Care Applications

What it is: Uses a machine-learning process to build better predictive models for types of continuous datasets. The IP has particular use in health care as software for spectroscopic and epigenetics data analysis.

Researchers: Ph.D. candidate Matthew Glace, associate professor Thomas Roper, Ph.D., and Roudabeh Moazeni-Ph.D., all with the VCU College of Engineering; Edwin van den Oord, Ph.D., professor of pharmaceutics at the School of Pharmacy and director of the VCU Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine.

MagnaShield

What it is: Intentional electromagnetic interference, or IEMI, is a method used by cybercriminals to send powerful electromagnetic pulses that disrupt or destroy devices essential to the modern world and critical infrastructure such as hospitals, power grids or transportation networks. A VCU team is developing lightweight materials that can absorb signals over a wide range of frequencies (like the ones used for 5G devices) without being too bulky or expensive. Less than a millimeter thick, the corrosion-resistant polymer composite material for broadband electromagnetic wave absorption not only protects devices and networks, but it also has superior thermal properties to keep devices from overheating.

Researchers: Radhika Barua, Ph.D., assistant professor, and Rodney Davis, VCU translational research fellow, both in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at the VCU College of Engineering.

NCMNtech LLC

What it is: A drug discovery platform focused on membrane proteins as drug targets. The technology provides a method for fast membrane protein characterization in a native lipid environment, outperforming existing solutions by providing accurate 3D structural information of membrane proteins. (NCMN stands for native cell membrane nanoparticle).

Researchers: Youzhong Guo, Ph.D., associate professor, and Weihua Qiu, Ph.D., research assistant professor, both in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at the VCU School of Pharmacy.

At-home Blood Calcium/Electrolyte Monitoring

What it is: At-home glucose meters have been available for decades, but what about at-home calcium meters? A VCU Chemistry team is developing a technology to test blood electrolytes in resource-limited settings such as at patients’ homes.

Researchers: Xuewei Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

 

Learn more here.

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