UM receives $3.5M grant to help researchers commercialize medical discoveries

Jay Evans

The University of Montana received a federal grant this week that will help biomedical researchers learn more about commercialization of their inventions and develop new entrepreneurs at Western universities.

The three-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences will help participating Western universities teach staff and students how their inventions and discoveries can be financed and commercialized, whether they be medical devices, tests, screenings or new medicines.

The grant was awarded in recognition of entrepreneurial efforts by both the University of Montana and the University of New Mexico.

Both play a role in the Mountain West Research Consortium, which involves 13 public research universities in seven Western states. A few of the schools participating in the grant include the universities of Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada-Reno and Hawaii.

Dr. Jay Evans of Missoula said it will also show the importance of discoveries in translational medicine, which involves the progression of a medical product from lab to clinic, or from initial discovery to clinical trials.

“That’s what the grant is about,” Evans told the Missoula Current. “It’s all about establishing an infrastructure around biomedical entrepreneurship, technology transfer management, small business finance, and the skills needed to advance those products forward.”

UM’s Center for Translational Medicine, which Evans oversees as director, along with the University of New Mexico and Seattle-based product development company Virtici, will build the platform for all universities in the surrounding region and become hubs to lead the programs.

The grant monies can be used to set up workshops at each college campus to teach staff and students about commercialization, and how to pitch and present their products to possible investors.

In the long run, Evans said, the grant will benefit the Montana University System and other research departments.

“We’ll spend the first year or two assessing the situation in this Mountain West region as far as what the current best practices are in technology transfer and entrepreneurism,” Evans said. “Based on where the gaps are, we will develop materials that will help these Western states advance those technologies.”

As CEO and president of the Missoula-based biotechnology company Inimmune, Evans said his company and UM’s Center for Translational Medicine have already helped local researchers advance their products.

UM professors Andrea and Donald Stierle recently discovered an antibiotic in Butte’s Berkeley Pit that could be used to treat infections resistant to other antibiotics. CTM and Inimmune helped out-license to a company in Missoula to advance commercialization of the professors’ discovery.

“Without that, it might have been hard for those university professors to figure out, or sort out how to advance that technology [and] commercialize it, which means it may never have gotten the chance to be tested in the clinic with the potential benefit of combating multi-drug-resistant bacterial infections,” Evans said.

He hopes that the grant will bring more awareness to translational medicine and encourage entrepreneurs to find potential in their products. If discoveries aren’t invested in, certain possible benefits, like the foreign antibiotic found at the nation’s largest Superfund site, won’t be shared with the rest of Montana and the nation.

“The university wins, the investigators win, a company in Montana and the local economy wins. If the invention hadn’t been noted and patented and the potential of it realized, five years from now, no one would even know it existed,” Evans said.