The Region’s Biotech Engine: UArizona Fuels Innovative Research, Startups

By Rodney Campbell

The University of Arizona is a hub of biosciences activity in the region, not just in learning, but in producing solutions that make their way to market and impact society. The following are the primary organizations within UArizona that are fueling research and creating startups.

BIO5 Institute

Launched in 2001, the BIO5 Institute was named for the five colleges whose work inspired the facility: agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy and science. BIO5 connects and mobilizes hundreds of world-class plant, animal and human bioscientists, engineers, physicians and computational researchers to develop creative solutions for complex challenges such as disease, hunger, water and food safety, and other health issues. This interdisciplinary approach has resulted in improved food crops, innovative diagnostics and devices, disease prevention strategies and promising new therapies.

University of Arizona Health Sciences

University of Arizona Health Sciences is one of the top-ranked academic medical centers in the Southwest. It includes the College of Medicine – Phoenix, College of Medicine – Tucson, College of Nursing, College of Pharmacy and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. In addition, 12 UArizona Health Sciences centers focus on cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, pain and addiction, and respiratory diseases; biomedical informatics, health technology innovation and simulation training; and precision health care and health disparities. UArizona Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and pulls in more than $200 million in research grants and contracts annually.

Recent achievements include:

  • HealthTech Connect is an invitation-only consortium designed to build opportunities for the startup, corporate, higher education, funding and economic development communities to advance Arizona’s cutting-edge innovations in health technology. Its first event was held in September at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.
  • The Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center is working to find solutions for chronic pain and the opioid epidemic through a collaborative mindset and a multifaceted approach. CPAC will address the epidemic from all angles, including addiction, chronic pain, education, legislation, clinical trials and research. CPAC will also create collaborations with biomedical engineers to develop devices and technologies to help predict and prevent substance abuse, as well as help save lives in overdose situations. CPAC is managed by a board made up of one representative from each of the five colleges in UArizona Health Sciences.
  • Cliacept Inc. is a company founded by pharmaceutical science students that aims to develop an antibody to treat Alzheimer’s disease by mitigating neuroinflammation in the brain. The company started in spring 2020 during the inaugural semester of Designing Drugs: From Chemistry to Cure.
  • People who suffer from migraines are reducing their pain and improving their quality of life thanks to pain specialists at the University of Arizona Health Sciences and their green light research. Dr. Mohab Ibrahim and Dr. Amol Patwardhan, both affiliated with CPAC, have been studying effects of green light exposure in rodents for several years. Ibrahim led a research team that completed the first clinical study to evaluate green light exposure as a potential preventive therapy for patients with migraine. Twenty-nine participants–all of whom had failed multiple traditional therapies–were prescribed green light exposure as part of the study. Overall, green light exposure reduced the number of headache days per month by an average of about 60%. Most participants in the study reported a more than 50% reduction in headache days per month.

College of Engineering

The College of Engineering offers 16 undergraduate degrees, many of which are in the biotech field. In fiscal year 2020, research expenditures combined in the College of Engineering and College of Optical Sciences totaled $53 million. The College of Engineering also has close ties with industry, including biotechnology companies such as Roche Tissue Diagnostics, BD and W.L. Gore.

Much of the college’s research occurs in the biomedical engineering department, one of the few biomedical engineering programs housed in a university that also has a full hospital. 

Recent achievements include:

  • Biomedical Engineering and Optical Sciences Professor Judith Su received a $1.8 million grant last year for a sensor system called frequency locked optical whispering evanescent resonator, which takes advantage of a phenomenon called whispering gallery waves. These waves come in the form of sound: Whisper something from one end of a room with specially rounded walls, such as at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and a friend at the other end of the room can make out what you are saying. In Su’s Little Sensor Lab, researchers are working to sense tiny amounts – down to a single molecule – of everything from doping agents to biomarkers for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Lyme disease and COVID-19.
  • Philipp Gutruf, an assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department and Craig M. Berge faculty fellow, is an expert in optogenetics, which uses light to affect the brain’s neurons. This method could allow scientists to turn off neural signals that cause things such as chronic pain or depression.
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Janet Roveda is the principal investigator of the Center to Stream Healthcare in Place, which recently received $3 million in National Science Foundation funding. The center, called C2SHIP, aims to develop clinically validated wearables that physicians can use to monitor patient health and provide “care-in-place” so patients don’t need to leave home.
  • Jeong-Yeol Yoon, a professor of biomedical engineering, biosystems engineering, animal and comparative biomedical sciences and chemistry and biochemistry, recently submitted a patent for smartphone-based COVID-19 testing method. He was in the news a few years ago for a similar device designed to detect trace amounts of norovirus. They hope these portable, easy-to-use methods will allow nonscientists to test water safety out in the field, for example.

“Engineering and the biosciences are key to the college’s research strategy, from solutions for clean water and sustainable agriculture to better health care. The college’s expertise spans sensors, point-of-care diagnostics, advanced imaging, wireless and wearable technologies – all the way to cancer and traumatic brain injury research,” said David W. Hahn, the Craig M. Berge dean of the College of Engineering. “Importantly, our researchers also have the advantage of collaborating with the University of Arizona’s comprehensive health science center on breakthroughs that are improving individuals’ quality of life.”

Tech Launch Arizona

The commercialization arm of the university, Tech Launch Arizona connects researchers and graduate and post-doctoral students with the technology and business community to maximize the impact of research, intellectual property and technological innovation.

Licensing Director Rakhi Gibbons has been with TLA since it opened in 2013. Her goal from the start has been to ensure that the work being done at UArizona doesn’t just remain on campus.

“It’s absolutely critical to have this function at a university if you want to create an impact,” she said. “Technology will die on the vine if you don’t have it.”

Despite slowdowns in research suffered by universities around the world because of the COVID-19 pandemic, TLA helped spur growth in the commercialization of university inventions last fiscal year. Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, TLA received 274 invention disclosures – 11 more than the previous year.

TLA also executed 124 licenses and options for university inventions (29 more than the previous fiscal year), filed 391 patents (44 more than the previous year) and saw 100 patents issued (13 more than the previous year). In addition, the university launched 17 startups, which not only bring UA inventions to the world for the public good, but also create jobs and economic impact.

“Our success is attributed to our team being dedicated and flexible, open to change in a remote environment,” Gibbons said. “When working remotely, it’s harder to connect with your team. We developed a good rhythm as a group and were able to keep things moving.”

Gibbons said TLA is already working against established traditions as it works to get companies interested in Tucson happenings. She said she and her cohorts have to work against a coastal bias – companies seem more interested in what’s going on around Boston, for example.

“Everybody was in a similar situation,” she said. “No one could easily travel. We were able to have conversations that we couldn’t have had. It opened up windows of opportunity.”

Tech Parks Arizona

Tech Parks Arizona directs the UA Tech Park at Rita Road, UA Tech Park at The Bridges and the UA Center for Innovation with the goal of recruiting companies with connections to the university to locate at the facilities.

“We are the intersection between academia and industry,” said Tech Parks Arizona Associate VP Carol Stewart. “All the key players are in our sandbox, especially in a cluster like bioscience.”

Within the incubator network, UArizona Center for Innovation there are 55 start-up companies and an additional 10 seeking to enter the system within the next 30 days. It’s a diverse group: 28% of the companies served by UACI have female-led founders. The nationwide figure is just 6% located in incubators.

UACI at the UA Tech Park at Rita Road & I-10 opened in 2003 and is the longest continuously operating incubator in Arizona. It’s part of an interactive community where innovators and business leaders meet, a place where emerging companies and technology giants work side by side. The incubator is often referred to as the heartbeat of the park, which encompasses 1,267 acres and has 2 million square feet of space for high-tech offices, research and development and laboratory facilities. The park generated an economic impact of $2 billion statewide and an estimated $52.8 million in tax revenues for state, county and city governments in 2019.

The newest addition to Tech Parks Arizona, UACI at Oro Valley, opened in December to support bioscience startups from the university and community.

Several new companies are established at UACI:

  • TheraCea is a biotechnology company with a focus on developing fast and high-yield chemical processes for the preparation of diagnostic agents for biomedical imaging. The company is sponsored in the incubator by the Bioindustry Association of Southern Arizona.
  • Souvie Biodelivery is a drug delivery development company that employs nanotechnology to engineer, patent and market novel drug delivery platforms to drug delivery niche markets.
  • Cellstate Biosciences works with clients developing cell-based assays to follow the changes in cellular targets that characterize a disease, identify a physiological process, or explain the wanted and unwanted actions of a drug.
  • uPetsia is incorporating an engineered bacteria for dog and cat microbiota into dog treats and chews which provides hours of fresh breath. The company is sponsored in the incubator by the Oro Valley Chamber.

When it opens early next year, UA Tech Park at The Bridges will be home to a community of technology companies, just minutes from UArizona resources, a collective of research experts and robust talent pipeline. Long-term plans call for 1.2 million to 1.5 million square feet of developed office and laboratory space that could support roughly 5,000 to 6,000 employees on-site. The park will be 65 acres within a larger 350-acre multi-use development that will include recreation, education, retail and residential development.

Startup companies connected with UACI come from UArizona, the community and across the globe. Businesses that locate at the parks are plugged into the collaboration and resources of the UArizona, a Tier 1 university ranked in the top 20 among U.S. public research institutions with more than $734 million in total research activity in fiscal year 2019, according to the National Science Foundation.

“Being part of an innovation ecosystem affiliated with the university, provides us with the opportunity to engage with entrepreneurs and the community to bridge resources and accelerate the most promising inventions,” said UACI Executive Director Eric Smith.

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