University clusters link research, market

Universities can be among the strongest economic-development engines, and part of that can be attributed to the work done at university “clusters,” or engines for linking research and commercial products.

The University of Colorado, University of Wyoming and Colorado State University are all home to these types of efforts in some form or another, and each is growing and introducing new research that either have or could morph into a marketable product.

At CU, clusters are called research institutes. CU houses 11 of these research institutes, which accounted for more than half of the $380 million in 2012 sponsored research dollars at the university. The institutes employ 900 researchers, student and support staff who work on issues ranging from natural history to biotechnology.

One of the foremost institutes at CU is the Biofrontiers Institute, formerly the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology. The Biofrontiers Institute is headed up by 1989 Nobel laureate Tom Cech, who discovered the principle of RNA catalysis.

Cech’s more recent research involves proteins in chromosomes that may have implications for cancer patients. Cech’s work dovetails with the research done at the Biofrontiers Institute, which focuses on taking discoveries and extending them into real-world applications that improve human health and well-being.

Research there is divided into four areas: Large datasets and genomics, biophysics and imaging, chemical biology and drug development and regenerative biology.

One of the most recent companies to spring from the Biofrontiers Institute is MyoKardia Inc., which was launched earlier this year in conjunction with Stanford University and Harvard University Medical School with $38 million in venture capital.

MyoKardia is developing small molecule therapeutics to address clinical needs for patients with genetic heart disease. The company is based in San Francisco and has begun work on two genetically driven types of a heart disease called cardiomyopathy, which both weakens and enlarges the heart muscles.

At CSU, these clusters are called “superclusters,” and the most recently established, the clean energy supercluster, was unveiled in 2008 with the assistance of then-Gov. Bill Ritter and then-Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar.

CSU is home to two other superclusters, one focusing on cancer research and the other on infectious disease. The establishment of the superclusters was a response to the realization that there were opportunities for commercialization based upon research at the university but that additional investment was required.

To that end, the university initially invested “several thousand” dollars in each cluster, according to Bill Farland, vice president of research at CSU.

More than 100 faculty members work at these superclusters, which also spawned CSU Ventures, a university-funded entity aimed at business development.

The superclusters have made a difference in the amount of licensing and patenting emerging from CSU, Farland said.

Between 1997 and 2006, 18 startups came out of CSU, but between 2007 to 2011, that number jumped to 20.

Similarly, the number of patents emerging from CSU was 124 between 1997 and 2006, but from 2007 to 2011, half the number of years, the number of patents springing from the university was 165.

Today, the three clusters combined receive $2 million annually to help them in their work.

Perhaps the most prominent company so far to emerge from CSU is Prieto Battery, the manufacturer of a lithium-ion battery that is billed as environmentally friendly, more efficient and less expensive than traditional batteries.

At UW, the Western Research Institute does research that is funded both through grants and through private financing.

WRI has three areas of expertise: highway materials, such as asphalt technology, environmental technology and energy use. While it can be said that WRI’s “product” is research, the institute has patented several processes that are applied throughout the industries it serves.

For example, WRI’s pre-combustion thermal mercury removal technology has been shown to remove up to 80 percent of the mercury in Powder River Basin coal. The technology has the capability to increase efficiency by 3 to 4 percent at Powder River Basin coal plants.

Other WRI-produced technology holds potential for alternative energy generation and environmental remediation.

Microbial fuels cells is a newer technology on which WRI is conducting research focused on “enhancing degradation of organic contaminants while generating electricity.”

According to WRI’s website, “power generated by MFCs is sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and very versatile because the fuel source can easily vary from sugar, to sewage, to groundwater contaminated with petroleum products. Opportunities for this multi-tasking technology are virtually limitless.”

Clusters of innovation

Hundreds of researchers and others work at Colorado and Wyoming university research clusters or institutes.

UC research institutes

Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society — ATLAS is an initiative in education, research, creative work and outreach in which information and communication technology is “the enabling force.”

Biofrontiers Institute — Works to leverage and expand Colorado’s leadership in biotechnology and its promise for human advancement.

Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science — Explores aspects of the Earth and searches for ways to understand how natural and human-made disturbances impact our planet.

Institute for Behavioral Genetics — Conduct and facilitate research examining the genetic bases of individual differences in behavior.

Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research — CU’s oldest institute focuses on polar and alpine regions, where effects of global change are especially pronounced, as well as environmental challenges that span local, regional and global scales.

Institute of Behavioral Science — Provides a setting for interdisciplinary, collaborative research on problems of societal concern.

Institute of Cognitive Science — Gained a reputation for the promotion of interdisciplinary research and training in cognitive science and applies theories on that subject to real-world problems.

JILA — Explores questions about quantum physics, the design of precision optical and X-ray lasers, the principles underlying the interaction of light and matter, and processes that have governed the universe for nearly 14 billion years.

Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics — Focuses on the study of Earth’s atmosphere, the sun, and the solar system and is the world’s only research institute to have sent instruments to all eight planets and Pluto.

Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute — A joint institute between the University of Colorado and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory addressing problems in energy.

University of Colorado Museum of Natural History — Contributes to knowledge of the natural world and the humanities through research, teaching, and public education.

CSU ‘superclusters’

Clean Energy and Cenergy — Works to enhance the ability of university scientists and business partners to speed clean and renewable energy research to the marketplace.

Cancer Research and NEOTrex — Dedicated to speeding the transition of life-saving cancer research from the academic world to the global marketplace.

Infectious Disease and MicroRX — A first-of-its-kind enterprise to speed the transition of life-saving research on infectious diseases from the academic world into the global marketplace.

University of Wyoming

Western Research Institute — Renowned for work in advanced energy systems, environmental technologies and highway materials research.

Molly Armbrister covers real estate, banking and health care for the Northern Colorado Business Report. She can be reached at 970-232-3139, marmbrister@ncbr.com or twitter.com/MArmbristerNCBR
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