By Krista Richmond
Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski

“There’s no easy way to do a startup,” Derek Eberhart said, “but there are a lot more resources, tools and understanding about the process than there used to be.”

Eberhart, director of UGA’s Innovation Gateway, leads a team of experts who make the process easier for UGA’s faculty, graduate students and postdocs. The team, including Ian Biggs, senior associate director of startups with Innovation Gateway, focuses on translating technologies into products. So far, more than 675 products based on UGA research have been introduced to the marketplace, including 52 in fiscal year 2017.

“The goal of our Innovation Gateway unit is to maximize the impact of UGA research discoveries and foster economic development through industry partnerships and new venture formation,” said Vice President for Research David Lee. “It combines the university’s intellectual property licensing and startup support function to streamline the path from the laboratory or field to the marketplace, ensuring that UGA research discoveries reach their full potential for public benefit.”

“Our push is not to see how many startups we can help create,” Eberhart said, “it’s to help launch companies based on a sustainable value proposition that address a market need.”

In essence, Innovation Gateway acts as a facilitator, guiding those interested in taking a new technology to the marketplace to ask the right questions, create a sound business approach and develop an ­appropriate plan for testing and bringing products to market. To date, more than 160 companies based on UGA research have been launched.

“It is incumbent on us, as part of the research mandate, to move these technologies to where they can best benefit the world,” Biggs said.

An economic powerhouse

Innovation Gateway’s impact already can be felt. The startups coming from the program have created more than 1,300 jobs, which creates a more than $128 million annual economic impact. Perhaps even more important, three out of four of those startups have stayed in Georgia.

According to Biggs, successful startups go through a four-step process.

“The startup pathway is ­complicated and requires ­different skills during different phases,” Biggs said. “We help startups work out what their needs are and connect them with the people or resources they need to move forward.”

That help can come from other areas around the university, including Alumni Association members serving as mentors as well as law students providing legal advice.

The first step is fully generating a startup idea. Then, there is an evaluation process, and Innovation Gateway provides the tools to help those with ideas evaluate their prospects. As part of this stage, participants go through the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program to help the ideas move toward commercialization. UGA was named an I-Corps Site last year, and the corresponding program is headed by Biggs. It is during this stage that participants establish exactly what their idea is, what it will do and who their customers are.

During the development phase, participants often work with the Georgia Research Alliance for initial seed grants. Innovation Gateway also offers office and lab space for additional research and development.

In the last phase, companies learn how to scale up their business, which can include the product production process and building the right team of employees.

Candidus is just starting its Innovation Gateway path. The company was started by Erico Mattos, who received his doctorate in crop and soil sciences from UGA in 2013, and Marc van Iersel, the Dooley Professor of Horticulture in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. The goal of Candidus is to help greenhouse growers maximize their return on investment by increasing yields and reducing costs.

Without Innovation Gateway, this would have just been a really cool idea and a bunch of academic papers.” — Marc van Iersel

The company is developing products to control when and how much light is provided in greenhouses by supplemental lighting strategies. The technology takes into account weather conditions along with a specific crop’s light requirements and physiology. Candidus’ technology creates predictability for growers by providing consistent lighting, which yields stronger, healthier crops.

Candidus is in Innovation Gateway’s development phase and is ready to apply for GRA’s Phase 3 grant. Mattos and van Iersel also are gathering focus group feedback and defining their customer base.

According to Mattos and van Iersel, the assistance Innovation Gateway provided through grants and mentorship will help them go from a startup to a mature company.

“Without them, I’m not sure any of this would have happened,” van Iersel said. “Without Innovation Gateway, this would have just been a really cool idea and a bunch of academic papers.”

“They provide support from Day 1,” Mattos added.

Rick Shimkets, president and CEO of Abeome, also is familiar with the support Innovation Gateway offers.

“There is no better way to go in Georgia than to work in an incubator,” Shimkets said. “You really need this kind of resource.”

Abeome is a “graduate” of Innovation Gateway and recently moved into its own building in Bogart. The company focuses on developing therapeutic monoclonal antibodies to treat a variety of human diseases.

A range of assistance

Innovation Gateway helped Abeome go from technology to business by assisting with GRA and Small Business Innovation Research grants, mitigating costs for lab equipment, developing business plans, fostering key relationships and providing lab and office space.

Now, Abeome is poised to scale up its business. In fact, applying the lessons learned through Innovation Gateway, Abeome’s new building provides opportunity for expansion.

In addition to helping start new companies, Innovation Gateway also assists with traditional technology transfer, or the licensing of UGA-developed technology to an industry partner for product development. The licensing program works with researchers to identify technologies with commercial potential, protect intellectual property and identify possible paths to the marketplace. UGA has ranked among the top 10 U.S. universities in licensing deal flow for 10 consecutive years.

UGA’s diverse research enterprise produces a rich pipeline of licensing and startup company opportunities. The top market sectors in 2017 included biotechnology, agriculture, software, pharmaceuticals and scientific services.

Expanding technology transfer is among the areas of focus for the Presidential Innovation District Task Force, announced by President Jere W. Morehead during his 2018 State of the University in January. The task force was formed to develop a strategic, long-term vision for an innovation district at UGA that can—among other goals—connect the university’s creative endeavors with the broader entrepreneurial landscape. Eberhart is part of the task force, led by Lee and Griff Doyle, vice president for government relations.