AZ Innovation Challenge Grants Help Tucson Tech Startups Bring New Products & Services to Market More Quickly
David Wichner Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 12:00 am
A first-ever blood test for multiple sclerosis.
A new system for repairing pipelines with carbon-fiber composites.
A trucking website where companies can post and bid on individual loads.
Those are a few of the new products and services emerging from Tucson, thanks in part to a state grant program of federal stimulus funds last year.
The Arizona Innovation Challenge grant program was intended to help technology startups quickly bring their innovations to market.
Now, some of those grants are bearing fruit, and the state has picked up funding for the next round of Innovation Challenge grants.
The state Commerce Authority has adopted the initial program and recently named 25 semifinalists for the first of two $1.5 million rounds of grants, said Brian Sherman, senior vice president of business development for the agency.
The grants are relatively modest – $100,000 to $250,000 each, and totaled just $1.5 million last year to eight grantees.
But they make a big difference to the grant-winning companies, which last year included six Tucson-based tech startups.
A grant of $226,495 helped Tucson-based MSDx Inc. bring its first product – a blood test for research of multiple sclerosis – to market last fall.
“We have our first product, and we’re working on two more this year,” MSDx President Marie Wesselhoft said.
The company is producing its first test for MS research, right here in Tucson, to help screen patients based on a set of genetic “biomarkers,” Wesselhoft said.
Though the company’s test is not yet approved for patient diagnostics, Harvard Medical School is using the test in research, and the company is in discussions with other research users.
MSDx plans to develop two more blood-test kits with different biomarkers this year, and two more in 2013, Wesselhoft said.
MSDx is in the process of doing its third clinical trial, an 80-patient local study with Northwest NeuroSpecialists. The company will use the results to structure a larger study next year, for submission for federal approval of the product for patient diagnostics.
Another 2011 awardee, HJ3 Composite Technologies, used a $140,506 grant to help launch a new product and processes to repair pipelines.
HJ3, which specializes in carbon-fiber technologies to strengthen buildings and other structures, had offered some pipeline products but had to invent and qualify materials to comply with new standards for high-risk pipelines, said Jim Butler, president and co-founder of HJ3.
The new pipeline product already was developed and was launched in stages last year, offering stronger materials and shorter repair curing times, but the grant was critical to bring the product to market.
“It really accelerated things … But the money wasn’t used to invent new materials. It was used to commercialize these materials,” Butler said. “Our rule is, nothing happens until you sell something.”
Among the other Tucson grantees:
• Biovidria Inc. had intended to use a grant of $102,150 to finish development of its micro-array slides, which detect and analyze types of proteins to provide early detection of cancer and other diseases.
But the company has shifted its focus to different product formats, said Corey Smith, Biovidria president and CEO.
The company incorporated its technology into “columns” used to separate proteins in a process called liquid chromatography, and into tiny “beads” that attract certain proteins for analysis.
Some of those products are now being evaluated by potential customers, Smith said.
• Sunsonix, a California-based company with business-development and marketing operations here, used a $239,400 Innovation Challenge grant to get its proprietary chemicals for cleaning photovoltaic solar cells into the hands of potential customers.
“It allowed us to actually go on site with each customer” to test the product and qualify it on their equipment, said Mark George, executive vice president of Sunsonix.
Several companies have since qualified the product for use, and the company is in the process of scaling up production to meet initial orders, George said.
• Post.Bid.Ship., a trucking site established by three students of the UA’s McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship, took its website live in September, thanks in part to a $139,000 grant.
The company has signed up more than 1,000 users and is busy raising $850,000 from investors in a second round of funding, CEO Micky Thompson said.
The company’s own brokerage service, TruckItNow, is already profitable, Thompson added.
• Another local company, Surgical Tools, is using a $173,735 grant to finish development of disposable medical devices to be used during cancer surgery.
Emre Toker, CEO of Surgical Tools and mentor-in-residence at the McGuire Center, said the company plans to introduce its new products at the annual meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons next month in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, Tucson semifinalists for this year’s Innovation Challenge grants are HJ3, which applied again; Acudora, a developer of advanced audio-processing systems; Cancer Prevention Pharmaceuticals, a drug-discovery company; Discern Science Corp.; Dmetrix Inc.; and Earth Knowledge Inc.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4181.
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