Grants reward innovations in software, life sciences

Seven teams share $80,000 in funds to further research, disseminate progress

Photo/Mike Lovett

Sprout Grant presentations

A total of $80,000 to develop products ranging from a dirty-bomb detector to a mobile app that acts as a virtual business card has been awarded to seven of 20 teams of students, fellows and faculty entrepreneurs who participated in the second annual Sprout Grant competition.

The purpose of the Brandeis Virtual Incubator Sprout Grant Program is to foster entrepreneurship in Brandeis students, post-doctoral fellows, staff and faculty and be a focal point for those interested in technology commercialization, the intersection of business and science. Funding is provided by the Office of the Provost and gifts from members of the Brandeis University Scientific Advisory Council.

The program was created as part of a movement among U.S. universities to create “proof-of-concept” centers -- programs which link entrepreneurial students and faculty to the resources they need, such as venture capitalists, angel investors, industry partners and entrepreneurs, to move discoveries coming out of basic university research to the market, for the public good. The Sprout Grant program is one of the first grant programs of this type established at a small research university. There were 20 teams and 65 participants this year. Some of last year’s winners have gone on to notable success.

StudyEgg, a study tool application that was featured in Entrepreneur Magazine and is being sponsored in the Cambridge Innovation Center, has raised at least a year worth of funding. A team that is working to identify pharmacological chaperones that promote survival in mouse models of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — often referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease — now have a patent under option, and a licensee funding research costs.

“We had many more software applications this year than last, which I think comes out of the efforts that have gone on in the computer science department to support entrepreneurship,” said Irene Abrams, associate provost for innovation and executive director of the Office of Technology Licensing.

Professor of computer science Tim Hickey and adjunct professor Pito Salas, have been involved in a Justice Brandeis Semester program (JBS) creating mobile apps, which Abrams feels has inspired many students to further their interests in entrepreneurship.

Of the 20 applications submitted this year, half were software related, half life sciences related. Thirteen groups were asked to return for in-depth interviews, coaching and presentations to outside panels of industry judges.  Seven of the thirteen applicants were awarded grants to help move their projects further toward market.

“We took more pains to get to know the finalist teams this year,” said Salas, who chaired the judging of the software teams. “Instead of basing everything solely on the applications, Irene Abrams and I met with the teams that we felt to be the most promising for an informal coaching and brainstorming session before presenting to the judges.”

Among this year’s life science winners is a project out of the Hedstrom Lab to inhibit Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Suresh Gorla, a post doctorate and lead in the project says that over 30 percent of the world population is infected with tuberculosis — and their laboratory has identified nine compounds that inhibit Mtb in a test tube. With the Sprout Grant funding, they will be able to study the efficacy of these compounds in animal models.

“Our technology is novel and affordable to the developing world,” says Gorla. “We hope to develop a lead compound against tuberculosis infection within one year, and license this technology to pharmaceutical companies.”

Another project, BNX, is a nuclear radiation detector. Led by high-energy physicists Lawrence Kirsch and Hermann Wellenstein, the team was able to work on a solution to one of the most practical and serious problems of our day: protecting the nation's ports from the import of radioactive material which could be used to create devastating attacks by terrorists.  The design takes advantage of techniques used in many experiments by the Brandeis High Energy Physics group, but it has been modified to use readily available materials to search efficiently for contraband cargo.

“The grant money will allow them to build a prototype and to get access to a neutron source so they can actually test it,” Abrams said. “Once there is a prototype that can be tested, they will have enough evidence to try to find a path to market.”

 Another project seeks to learn how the brain rewires itself by studying the communicating connections between neurons, known as synapses.  Approximately 1,000 types of proteins are found in a synapse. David DeRosier, an emeritus professor of biology, and his team in the Turrigiano lab wanted a method to determine the organization of these proteins and to examine the changes in organization that take place during rewiring.

“Every time you see something that you read, touch or hear, your brain must rewire in order to store the memory,” says DeRosier. “This occurs with any external stimuli.”

Their method to learn how the brain rewires: build a microscope that can handle viewing slides that are extremely cold, as samples can be perfectly preserved if fast frozen and kept cold.

The software teams proved impressive as well, with two teams delving in to the social networking arena.

One, CampusBash, is a user-driven web service that forms a hub to find out what’s happening on college campuses, such parties and sporting events.

Another winner is a tool from a Brandeis team called Innermost Labs. They’ve developed a mobile app which combines a virtual business card model with a map-based visualizer; once people are entered into their address book, they’re tagged according to shared interest and location, making future meet-ups easier. The app was actually tailored for an organization conference called RootsCamp and used by attendees.

“The Sprout Grant experience gave us the kick in the pants to create the startup we'd been idly considering for months,” a team member said. “It forced us to improve and think about every element of how our business would work.”

Abrams said the judges loved the passion that this team had and despite current competition for conferencing applications, they felt that their connections to the activist, grass-roots community would aid in their ability to make it work.

“I really want to see Brandeis become more of a force in the start-up scene in the Boston area,” said Salas, who credits programs like the Sprout Grant, the Justice Brandeis Semester (JBS) program and the 3 Day Startup (3DS), a business school event in which teams of students, entrepreneurs and investors choose a software idea during a Friday brainstorming session and finish a minimal prototype by Sunday night. The goal is to build enough momentum among a network of motivated people to sustain the company beyond the weekend.

“All of these programs are part of building up the real-world knowledge experience, insight, and feel that our students have when they graduate. It gives them a real presence in the start-up world in Boston and around the country.”

2012 Sprout Grant winners, life science:

Radiation detector, Wellenstein, PI $20,000
Tuberculosis treatment, therapeutic, Hedstrom, PI $17,000
Cold Stage for Light Microscopy, microscope tools, Turrigiano, PI $16,000
Conditional gene silencing, research tool, Lau PI, $6,000

2012 Sprout Grant winners, software:
Innermost Labs, social network, Hickey, PI $7,500
Digital Learning Analytics, learning analytics, Larusson, PI  $6,000
CampusBash, social network, Jafferji, PI $6,500

Life science judges included:
•    Eric Furfine, Ph.D. ’88, president of research and development at ElevenBio.
•    Cindy Bayley, Ph.D. affiliate of ARCH. co-founder deCODE Genetics, Adolor, , Elixir Pharmaceuticals, Plectix BioSystems
•    Jonathan Behr, Ph.D. senior director, technology and business development, Enlight BioSciences
•    Renee Cohen V.P., head of corporate strategy at Shire Pharmaceuticals
•    John Edwards, CEO at F-star Biologics and Executive Chairman at Permeon Biologics
•    Lori Pressman IP strategy, business development and Tech Transfer consultant, director Harris & Harris Group
•    Stacie Weninger, Ph.D., executive director of the Fidelity Biosciences Research Initiative

Software judges included:
•    Jeffrey Beir, partner at seed2A; Founder & CEO at RoadAhead
•    Melissa Leffler, VP, engineering and operations at Awareness Networks
•    Jordan Pollack, chairman of Computer Science at Brandeis
•    Paul English, CTO and Cofounder of KAYAK
•    Andy Singleton, founder and president of Assembla
•    Deb Shurfin, director of investments at Brandeis University Office of Investments.

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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