Auburn Invests in Native Invention

Auburn University’s two-year-old Launch initiative has invested $300,000 in university-born research — looking to bridge the gap between lab testing and commercialization.

Peter Panizzi, a professor at Auburn’s Harrison School of Pharmacy, is working to develop, test and market “Clot-in-a-Can,” an agent that quickly stops bleeding and can be carried in a first aid kit. Photo by Julie Bennett

In 2017, Bernhard Kaltenboeck was at a crossroads with research he had been doing since about 2009.

He had just about perfected an additive to replace antibiotics in animal feed — resulting in larger animals and lower food costs — but he had one more big step.

“We were missing a larger scale swine trial,” says Kaltenboeck, professor and director of the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory in Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “That would show this works and that the cost is low enough that there is a profit to be made.”

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So Kaltenboeck turned to a program at Auburn called Launch: The Fund for Research and Innovation. Launch gave Kaltenboeck the money he needed for the study, which was successful, and now, a year later, his product has jumped a big hurdle and is closer to commercialization.

Should that happen, it will mean money for both Kaltenboeck and Auburn, exactly what Launch has been trying to do with nearly $300,000 in grants given since its inception in 2016.

“The whole program was created to address what researchers referred to as the ‘valley of death,’” says Cary Chandler, director of business development and startups for Auburn’s Office of Innovation Advancement & Commercialization. “It’s when research funding has run out but they’re not quite at the commercialization stage.”

Via Launch, researchers can apply for funding to help bridge that gap between the end of testing and the beginning of commercialization. In return, Auburn will own part of the licensing and will benefit when these projects are commercialized.

About $100,000 in funding is in place for each of the next two years, Chandler says, and the hope is to find new sources of funding after that.

It’s a program that folds in nicely with Auburn President Steven Leath’s goal to take Auburn to new levels of research.

“Our Launch program advances innovative ideas of Auburn researchers into products and services that benefit our communities, strengthen the state’s economy and move our nation forward,” he says. “It’s through real-world solutions to complex issues that Auburn is inspiring and innovating for the greater good.”

Already, Launch has given money to 10 research projects, including three in 2018 that feature advances in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and healthcare.

Here’s a look at the three programs that received Launch grants in 2018.

Improving first-aid kits

Peter Panizzi is looking to update first-aid kits around the world.

“I am designing a new hemostatic agent that can rapidly stop bleeding, as a means to save lives following acute injuries,” says Panizzi, associate professor in the Department of Drug Discovery and Development in the Harrison School of Pharmacy. “It is a very cool application and an extraordinarily practical one. It is my ultimate hope that it will be added to all first-aid kits in the future.”

Panizzi was awarded a $35,700 grant “to explore this product idea and to generate sufficient data to support future testing.”

Launch offered money where others haven’t in the past.

“This idea of a new hemostatic agent has been knocked around for years, but there were no funds to pursue it,” Panizzi says. “In science, these types of ideas come and go but are largely left on the back burner, because they are not fundable in the classical sense of the word.”

He’s already putting his Launch money to work on his project, called “Clot-in-a-Can.”

“We are getting in, probably any day now, a new fermentation system that will give us the ability to make grams of the active agent for stability testing and other key trials,” Panizzi says. “From there, we will test in a real-world agriculture setting to validate our agent’s ability to rapidly stop bleeding following cattle dehorning. This is a great test for us, as we will work with local farmers to spray our agent on freshly-cut horns, thereby sealing the wounds and preventing additional blood loss and subsequent infections.”

Launch is giving money and attention to projects that might not flourish otherwise, Panizzi says.

“There are a ton of great ideas at Auburn University, and it is nice to see a few of them get the opportunity to develop,” he says.

Creating versatile 3D printers for the home market

3D printers aren’t the stuff of science fiction anymore. They are used widely in manufacturing, and one Auburn researcher is working on one that might be used at home, creating a technology that will allow metals other than aluminum to be printed.

“My research is an effort to create a new method of metal additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, that is faster and more feasible than current systems and cheap enough that home use would even be possible,” says Michael Knotts, graduate research assistant in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Knotts turned to the Launch program to help complete his research, and a $6,400 grant allowed him to do it.

“I applied for the grant after talking to the Office of Commercialization about potentially patenting the technology I was working on,” he says. “They explained what it was and that it could be used to help bring my idea to commercialization.”

Since receiving the grant, Knotts has been able to perfect his initial product.

“It has allowed me to take an earlier prototype that demonstrated proof-of-concept into a functional commercial machine that we are hoping to debut soon,” he says. “We are still undergoing testing on it, but it is now close to being a fully marketable product.”

That might not have happened without Launch, Knotts says.

“The Launch grant is a fantastic opportunity for Auburn researchers,” he says. “It allows for a good idea to transition out of the research realm into a commercial product. This funding has been a huge help to me in finalizing this printer, and I am very grateful for it.”

WORKING TOWARD A SAFER MRI

Barry Yeh and Tareq Anani are looking to make healthcare safer for some patient populations unable to receive optimum care.

That’s the crux of the research conducted by the two recent doctoral graduates of Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical Engineering. Along with Professor Allan David, their project is “Gadolinium-free MRI and MRA contrast agents.”

“The core technology, labeled diffusive magnetic fractionation (DMF), enables the explicit control of the properties of magnetic nanomaterials,” Yeh says. What this technology means for the patient is that it reduces potential toxic effects of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and MRA (magnetic resonance angiography).

Both MRIs and MRAs are noninvasive and painless diagnostic tools in wide use around the world. Yeh and Anani’s technology will make these technologies safer for patients, specifically those who might react poorly to gadolinium, the contrast material used with these tools.

“The lead products consist of iron-based nanomaterials engineered to offer contrast enhancement in MRI and MRA for patients with poor kidney function,” Yeh says. “These patients are currently unable to take gadolinium-based contrast agents, and it is also important to minimize gadolinium exposure for patients who undergo multiple, periodic MRI scans.”

With their $56,000 Launch grant, Yeh and Anani were able to continue studies on their potentially groundbreaking technology. “We successfully completed our initial studies on synthesizing and characterizing our developed agents with the help of the Launch grant,” Yeh says.

“We are now forming our own company, NanoXort, and preparing National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research applications based on the results from our initial studies.”

The Launch program has been a big part of that.

“The Launch Innovation Grant is a great program for commercializing technologies developed at Auburn University,” Yeh says. “It accelerates our product development and enables us to apply for governmental support.”

Alec Harvey and Julie Bennett are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Auburn.

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