This is a key to early career success because graduate students help generate new knowledge, and new knowledge leads to research publications, the gold standard of professional recognition. But Xiaohu Xia, an assistant professor in Michigan Tech’s Department of Chemistry, knew that he was not likely to do things in the normal fashion when he accepted a somewhat unusual invitation to Silicon Valley.
The invitation to meet with Dean Tsao was too intriguing to pass up. Tsao, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who earned his PhD in Biochemistry at Colorado State University, had been involved with the pharmaceutical sector, life science and medical diagnostics, founding several companies. After successfully exiting one of the companies, Tsao started looking for new diagnostic technologies he could develop for commercial use. After reading one of Xia’s papers on his work on artificial enzyme technology Tsao invited Xia to discuss the technology and its potential in his California office.
As Tsao found out, Xia’s technology has the potential to revolutionize a wide number of medical diagnostic tests that rely on the enzyme peroxidase by offering far greater sensitivity and reliability through the substitution of a catalytic nano-structure for the original enzyme, essentially creating an “artificial enzyme.” An example of one well-known and common test that relies on the enzyme peroxidase is the prostate specific antigen (PSA) detection test used to help diagnose prostate cancer.
Silicon Valley Partner
The meeting in California led Tsao to invest in the formation of a new company, called Zytogenex USA, Inc. The primary goal of Zytogenex is to apply Xia’s artificial enzyme technology to the development of in vitro diagnostic products.
Soon after, in January 2016, Zytogenex offered a letter supporting Xia’s proposal to the Michigan Translational Research & Commercialization (MTRAC) program. With support from the Michigan Strategic Fund, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation administers the MTRAC program in Applied Advanced Materials at Michigan Tech. The program’s mission is to accelerate the commercialization of technologies through a milestone-oriented process chosen and monitored by an Oversight Committee made up of experienced technical specialists and entrepreneurs in the field, along with venture capital professionals. The work of Xia and Zytogenex presented a very attractive opportunity for MTRAC funding.
Xia worked with MTRAC Commercialization Program Director John Diebel and Assistant Director of Technology Commercialization Mike Morley to craft a proposal unlike others he had written in the past. “MTRAC proposals focus on how to identify and overcome barriers to the technology’s commercialization,” Diebel explains. “An understanding of market demand for the technology—driven by customer needs—and a plan for strategic team building are equally important parts of the proposal, in addition to the technical elegance of the research.”
In late May the MTRAC Oversight Committee elected to fund the project.
“The market fit and strategic alliance with Zytogenex gave the technology a higher probability of successful commercial development,” says Morley. “By engaging developmental partners and customers at an early stage in the commercialization process, the path and milestones were clearly defined. Having Tsao and his company on board as a partner—with his extensive experience with product development—allowed us to identify the critical market need and reduce risks, from both a patent filing and MTRAC funding-decision perspective.”
Soon after, Michigan Tech executed an option to license the Michigan Tech patent-pending technology with Zytogenex. This option agreement was done in parallel with a collaborative research agreement to help fund a visiting scholar to work on the project in Dr. Xia’s lab and interface with Zytogenex. “A visiting scholar will help pursue the MTRAC project goals to further refine the synthesis of the artificial enzyme, document its effectiveness, and develop procedures for large-scale production—all of which will ultimately help Zytogenex decide whether it should pursue commercial development of enhanced diagnostic kits containing the artificial enzyme,” adds Morley.
The MTRAC Oversight Committee was impressed with Xia’s initiative to develop a relationship with a commercial entity early in the development stage. “Willingness to develop such relationships is often a predictor of later technology transfer success,” notes Diebel.
“The project will add to our understanding of the synthesis process, fund collaborations with a visiting scholar and provide work study opportunities for undergraduate chemistry students working in the lab on the project,” he adds.
It’s a perfect example of the collaborative approach to science, technology and the marketplace that is the hallmark of Innovation Shore.
Improvement in Patients’ Lives
From Xia’s perspective, his involvement with the MTRAC program offers several advantages. An immediate satisfaction is seeing the potential for his work to impact lives through the improvement of tests relied upon by medical diagnosticians. He also likes that the relatively short review cycle allows him to quickly get started on “developing the preliminary data that can lead to long-term funding opportunities for my research. I look forward to developing a relationship with members of the MTRAC Oversight Committee who share an interest in my research goals,” Xia adds. “And knowing that MTRAC could leverage Zytogenex’s investment helped make Tsao’s decision to work with Michigan Tech that much easier.”
Xia’s journey to the West Coast center of venture capital wasn’t the typical path taken by young university faculty members looking for research support. But it does provide a novel case study in how commercialization and university academic goals can overlap to further discovery, education and the advancement of medical diagnostics in the field. “We are fortunate that the State of Michigan has a robust infrastructure with a number of tools we can use to support technology commercialization,” says Diebel. “The MTRAC program is just one of those tools available to the University, but there are a number of other helpful programs that could come into play as the project matures.”
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation administers the MTRAC program in Applied Advanced Materials at Michigan Tech, with support from the Michigan Strategic Fund.