Fourth cohort of MIRTA accelerator teams wraps up work
Four faculty-led teams pursuing commercialization of research projects are ready for the next steps in that journey having completed the University of Maine’s 2021 MIRTA accelerator program. The teams presented their projects at an event earlier this month, marking the conclusion of this year’s program.
The 2021 MIRTA teams, the fourth cohort to complete the program, are exploring innovations in bioconversion, biomedicine, food technology, and math education. Three of the four teams plan to pursue the creation of startup companies to continue development of their projects. (See below for detailed team descriptions and commercialization plans.)
“UMaine researchers — faculty, staff and students — are working in areas that can have major impact in Maine and beyond, and this year’s cohort illustrates that perfectly,” says University of Maine director of business incubation Veena Dinesh. “Their projects have the potential to unlock new uses for Maine wood, employ in-state additive manufacturing to grow Maine’s biomedical sector, reduce food waste while supporting sustainable aquaculture, and reimagine the way foundational mathematical skills are taught.”
MIRTA was designed to assist University of Maine System researchers to advance lab discoveries into public and commercial use, and the program is now expanding to support innovations from other Maine research institutions. The accelerator is administered by the Office of Innovation and Economic Development (OIED) with support from the University of Maine System Research Reinvestment Fund and the Maine Technology Institute. Over the course of the program, guided by OIED staff and external advisers, teams engage in customer discovery, market analysis, prototyping, partnership development and technology evaluation to map strategies for bringing their research to market.
In addition, each team has an advisory committee of industry and technology experts who provide feedback and advice. The teams are eligible for up to $25,000 each to help develop commercialization implementation plans. Commercialization plans vary depending on the type of invention a team brings to MIRTA, and the end result could be starting a new company or licensing to an existing one.
MIRTA is among several commercialization programs offered by the Office of Innovation and Economic Development. Researchers are encouraged to participate in the Commercialization Training Series, a webinar series providing topical overviews on subjects ranging from idea validation to intellectual property. UMaine’s I-Corps site program is the next step, helping research teams explore commercialization potential with grant funding available through the National Science Foundation. The MIRTA accelerator helps I-Corps participants build on their knowledge and move their ideas even closer to realization.
From the 17 teams in the four MIRTA cohorts to date, seven new startups have been formed, seven patents have been filed or issued, and the teams have collectively raised more than $2.3 million in external funding and prototype sales to support ongoing commercialization. Companies that have been formed after participation in MIRTA include Neuright, winner of the $25,000 David Shaw prize at the statewide Top Gun accelerator program in 2019, and UNAR Labs, selected to join the first cohort of the Roux Institute Startup Residency Program.
“Over the past four years, we’ve cultivated a broad network of collaborators and developed significant expertise and resources to support the commercialization of research innovations,” says assistant vice president of innovation and economic development Renee Kelly. “Building on that success, we’re excited to work with statewide partners to expand our MIRTA and I-Corps programs to laboratories and research institutions throughout Maine.”
The next MIRTA cohort is scheduled to begin in early 2022. For more information about the program, contact Dinesh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The MIRTA 4.0 Cohort
Faculty lead: Jim Weber, associate professor of animal and veterinary sciences
Supporting team members: Recent graduates Raleigh Toussaint (pre-veterinary sciences, ’21) and David Flewelling (biological engineering, ’21), as well as University of Maine entrepreneur-in-residence John Branscombe Jr
External partner: Brian McLaughlin, CEO and founder, Amplify Additive
BioAnchor has developed patented implant technology that promotes soft-tissue integration to form an infection-resistant “biological seal” in medical devices that penetrate the skin. The team has identified both the veterinary orthopedic market and the human surgical market as targets, and is in the process of establishing a spin-off company to continue product development. Weber is among the BioAnchor inventors, along with orthopedic oncologist Ian Dickey (also an adjunct professor at UMaine and chair of the external advisory board for the university’s undergraduate program in biomedical engineering); Anne Lichtenwalner, associate professor of animal and veterinary sciences and director of the University of Maine Animal Health Laboratory; and professor of chemical and biomedical engineering David Neivandt.
The team is working with Scarborough, Maine-based Amplify Additive to design and produce implant prototypes for testing and commercialization.
“Very early in MIRTA, we realized that we needed to pivot from animal identification devices and external fracture fixation pins to a device that attaches artificial limbs directly to the skeleton of an amputee,” says Weber. “And now, five months later, we’ve agreed in principle to form a spin-off company with the purpose of identifying potential users of our technology, bringing them in, and potentially doing R&D for them. The prosthetic market is ready for a technological advancement that reduces artificial limb failure rates, and we believe that it has a lot of potential for growth. We’re also really excited about the veterinary application. FDA approval for use in humans could take years, but we can immediately pursue approval for animal orthopedics and start helping animals, and that could provide valuable data that would lead the way to approval for use in people.”
Faculty lead: Andrei Alyokhin, professor of applied entomology
Supporting team members: Patrick Erbland, a UMaine alumnus and research associate at the Alyokhin laboratory, and Matthew Moyet, a UMaine alumnus and Ph.D. student at the Alyokhin laboratory
HI-Lucens employs black soldier fly larvae to convert food waste into high-quality protein for animal consumption. The team has developed a working prototype of an affordable, automated modular bioconversion system where larvae are nourished on food waste before being harvested, dried, and processed for use in fish, poultry and swine feeds.
“Going through the MIRTA program has helped us navigate through the trees and really focus on the important aspects that will propel us forward,” says Moyet.
The team is preparing to scale up into a pilot production facility and plans to form an LLC.
“I’ve been in research and education for my entire life, so it’s interesting to try something in the private sector,” says Alyokhin. “Rather than broadcasting the results of the research to everybody, or to industrial collaborators, instead I’m trying to follow through myself and see how it can be applied.”
Faculty advisor: Denise Skonberg, professor of food science
Research lead: Suriya Prakaash Lakshmi Balasubramaniam, Ph.D. candidate in food and nutrition sciences
Nature Nano is exploring the use of nanocellulose in food applications. After entering MIRTA seeking to develop and commercialize a biodegradable, antioxidant, and antimicrobial film made from renewable cellulose nanofibers for use in food packaging, Balasubramaniam pivoted to consideration of nanocellulose as a fiber-based food additive that shows promise for emulsification and can protect the bioactive compounds and increase the shelf life of foods.
“Participating in MIRTA and I-Corps has helped me understand the problems that need to be solved and what a successful product would look like for the food industry,” says Balasubramaniam. “Through my interviews, I learned that scale-up and cost were death threats to my original idea, and I pivoted to my second application, which I’m now validating. The MIRTA funding, combined with the program, has given my research an additional boost to explore new things and I’m really thankful to have been able to do it.”
Faculty advisor: Justin Dimmel, assistant professor of mathematics education and instructional technology
Supporting team members: Eric Pandiscio, associate professor of mathematics education, associate professor of art Gregory Ondo, UMaine sculpture studio technician Sam Hoey, and recent graduate Emma Reedman (biology, pre-med with minors in psychology and interdisciplinary studies, ’21)
External partner: Mitch Stone, economic development director, Town of Orono
The SunRule harnesses the rays of the sun to help users explore multiplication and division. The team has developed two versions of the device, a handheld design that could be used by individual students in K–12 math classes, and an interactive mathematical sculpture suitable for parks and museums. Both offer a connection to the outdoors and represent a unique approach to foundational mathematical concepts that many students struggle to learn and that instructors are seeking new ways to teach. Through a partnership with the Town of Orono, a SunRule installation is planned for Webster Park in the fall of 2021. The team plans to form a startup for direct sales to customers, focusing first on the education market (teachers, schools, parents), then museums, municipalities and other enterprise clients, and finally homeowners seeking a unique and functional outdoor element.
“MIRTA has provided us with support, structure and goals,” says Dimmel. “If you had asked me at the beginning of the semester where I thought we’d be, it would not have been anything like where we are. The idea of following your customer discovery, and not being afraid to pivot has helped us get to a very exciting place.”
“In addition to the structure Justin talks about, it was simply the notion of thinking more broadly about this neat little invention we have, thinking beyond ‘What paper could we write?’ That’s very important to us as academics, but it’s not the only pathway we have available to us,” says Pandiscio. “Because of I-Corps and MIRTA, we’re now looking at these other pathways and we have new partners that have helped us think differently about how we could build a better version of this.”
Contact: Ashley Forbes; 207.581.1429; email@example.com