10th Annual “A Celebration of Innovation”

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The 10th annual “A Celebration of Innovation” event on March 8 at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center gave 14 startups the opportunity to showcase their latest innovations in the scientific, medical, tech and aerospace fields.

These technologies were generated as a result of the more than $700 million in research conducted annually at UF, according to UF’s Office of Licensing Technology website.

“The showcase is an opportunity for representatives from all of key elements of our ecosystem to come together to network,” said Jane Muir, the director of the Florida Innovation Hub at UF. “To figure out additional ways of collaborating and really celebrating all that has been accomplished in the area of innovation at the University of Florida.”

The celebration went on to include ceremony that featured speakers such as UF’s President Ken Fuchs, David Norton, the vice president of UF’s Office of Research and John Byatt, the associate director of the Office.

In welcoming those who were there, Fuchs remembered an article Business Week ran in 2007, the first year of the showcase, about how UF was joining the ranks of top universities that boast impressive numbers of technology startups.

The headline read, “MIT, Caltech and the Gators?”

“Well, nearly a decade later, I love that headline,” Fuchs said. “But if it were written today, it would be without the question mark at the end.”

He continued by noting the various milestones UF has achieved over the last decade in becoming one of the world’s leading universities in the area of innovation – including Innovation Hub, built in 2010, and the Innovation Square.

From the time the hub opened through June of last year, it launched 61 companies that created 763 jobs and attracted more than $50 million in private investment, he said.

He also mentioned the tech company, Mindtree, which came to Gainesville in 2012, and AGTC, a biotech company that just opened a brand new facility in Alachua.  

“Those and other milestones have transformed discoveries into useful technologies while creating new jobs and luring outside investment,” he said.

David Norton, the vice president of UF’s Office of Research, took the stage next.

He said he wanted to take the audience on a journey – all the way back to 1.3 billion years ago, when two massive black holes collided, creating an enormous amount of energy that sent ripples through the universe outward.

Many, many years passed, he told the crowd, and Albert Einstein developed the theory of general relativity.

“And some interrelationship between time, space and matter that had never before been imagined,” he said. “A part of this theory was the predictive existence of something called gravitational waves that would propagate to the universe like a petal landing on a smooth, lake surface.”

Fast forward 92 years later, he said, and the construction of LIGO, or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory to detect gravitational ways, began.

University of Florida researchers were front and center throughout the design and developing the laser optics and computer algorithms as part of the LIGO project that made it a reality, he said.

“On September 14, 2015, with the upgraded LIGO being tested in the engineering mode, something remarkable happened,” he said. “That gravitational wave that emanated from that two black holes colliding 1.3 billion years ago, passed through the Earth. And we were ready.”

Shirley Pincus said she started feeling the unique sensation in her foot six or seven years years ago.

She contracted polio when she was three, just a little before the vaccine came to her area. It weakened her left side while she was growing up, but she still ran the bases at school.

She still played baseball with her dad and ran as far as she could, even though she was in a leg brace.

A few months later, the sensation turned into a white-hot, stabbing pain she couldn’t ignore.

“It was the most horrendous feeling that I have ever experienced in my life,” she said. “Yet I still had a deadline to meet. I had meetings to attend.  I had employees to deal with. And I had to do that all throughout this pain.”

She visited with a podiatrist, who inserted plates into her foot and straightened out some of her toes. It didn’t work and the pain returned.

She tried nerve block surgery with another doctor, and in two or three months, she faced the pain all over again.

Her podiatrist suggested they amputate the tips of two of her toes, a suggestion she didn’t take lightly.

She thought she hit the jackpot with the next doctor, a physician who had worked with professional athletes in the Chicago area. He said he also thought amputation would be the solution. She agreed to the surgery.

The pain was back in a matter of days.  

“I was struck out again,” she said. “Now, I’m [she was] getting very frustrated and getting very tired of all of the pressure that the pain brings along with trying to hold a full-time job and have a relationship with my husband and my family.”

But all hope was not lost.

She said she was in bed one night and put something into Google like, “doctors who perform treatment on patients with lower limb deformities.”

She stumbled across a website for the office of two doctors in Chicago named Edgardo Rodriguez, a surgeon, and Roberto Segura, a neurologist. She learned of the philanthropic treatment Rodriguez had performed on children in third world countries, and it appealed to her.

She made an appointment at the office and was Rodriguez’s last patient of the day. He asked her to rate her pain on a scale from 1 to 10.

“My response, is [was] just please amputate my foot,” she said. “It was that bad.”

She said Dr. Rodriguez said later that it was right then that he knew he could help her.  

AxoGen’s Avance Nerve Graft  

Dr. Rodriguez told Pincus about a little-known procedure intended to decompress her nerves using allograft technology produced by AxoGen Inc., a human tissue company situated in Alachua.

An allograft is a bone, ligament, cartilage, tendon or section of skin that is transplanted from one person to another, according to the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation website.

She said not one doctor before Rodriguez suggested a nerve injury might be causing the pain she had suffered all these years.

The surgery consisted of Dr. Rodriguez splitting into her leg in three different places.

He found, under a microscope magnified 40 times, damaged nerves particles – the source of her excruciating pain. He removed them and put in their place Avance, the advanced nerve graft from AxoGen’s collection of products, she said.

“I, at that time, had no idea that these were donor nerves that had been processed and cleansed,” she said. “I just knew that he was transplanting something into my body.”

The morning after the surgery, Pincus said the only pain she felt was from the incisions made during her surgery.

“That pain that had plagued me for five, six years was gone in a day,” she said.  “It’s been post-surgery for a little over two years, and I still have not had a reoccurrence of the pain whatsoever.”

AxoGen, Inc.

Pincus was among four panelists at the “Celebration of Innovation” Startup Showcase, which took place at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center on March 8.

As the recipient of Dr. David Muir and AxoGen’s nerve graft, she had the opportunity to sit next to others who were crucial in making it a reality: Karen Zaderej, president and CEO, Christine Schmidt, one of the inventors behind its technology and Tim Gray, the portfolio manager at Inukshuk Capital Management and an initial investor of AxoGen.

Jack Sullivan Jr., the CEO of the Florida Research Consortium, moderated the discussion.

Schmidt, who spoke first, said she moved to Gainesville three years ago from the University of Texas at Austin, where she began researching peripheral nerve repair together with a team of grad students.

“The nervous system is amazing,” she said. “It’s what controls everything in our bodies and sends signals and controls everything that we do.  But unfortunately, as shown on these slides, nerves can be damaged… So, our lab was very dedicated to developing materials and developing systems that could help promote nerves to regenerate.”

She said her work focused on preserving the architecture and matrix of nerves, which is critical in order for them to regenerate.

Dr. David Muir, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at UF, was also exploring peripheral nerve regeneration at the same time, she said.

Muir’s career has been dedicated to developing strategies to improve nerve repair and regeneration using activators of nerve growth and biologically engineered nerve allografts, according to UF’s pediatric research website. He holds the patent for the basis of the Avance nerve allograft.

“And just to hear when it [the nerve graft] was actually going into patients, being able to meet one of these patients has been just an amazing journey for a scientist,” Schmidt continued.  “That’s very inspiring.”

Schmidt said she decided to move from Texas and continue her work in Gainesville because of her interactions with AxoGen and Dr. Muir. The comprehensive nature of UF also appealed to her.

“I knew that it was a very entrepreneurial community,” she said. “That was a huge draw of having this community, the entrepreneurial community – being able to invent and get things commercialized because that’s absolutely critical. If we invent and don’t get it into the clinic and into the commercial sector, then in a sense, what’s the point?”

Zadarej, the next speaker, told the story of how AxoGen and the emergence of the advanced nerve graft got started.

She said Jamie Grooms, who also founded RIT, and John Engels founded the company.  

Grooms, a serial entrepreneur, loved the idea of translating his ideas into patient care.

Grooms met with David Day, the current assistant vice president and director of the Office of Technology Licensing at UF, and saw some interesting intellectual property at UF and that was the start of AxoGen, she said.

She said Groom’s “Aha!” moment happened when he realized how to manage nerve inhibitors.

“He and John approached Christine,” she said. “And that was the genesis of what today is our flagship product, the advanced nerve graft.”

She said other procedures to remedy nerve damage usually take something from somewhere else in the patient’s body and transplant it.  

Although this repairs the nerves, it still does harm to the patient by creating a permanent deficit somewhere else in the body, she said.

“They take a nerve from the leg that gives you sensation for your foot, so you can have something again that you deem more important,” she said. “Maybe [that’s] moving your hand, maybe being able to smile — generally that’s gonna be more important than a sensation in your foot, but you’re still gonna have a permanent deficit from that surgery.”

Startups

Fourteen startup companies were Tuesday to promote their innovations to potential investors.  

One of these included Actionable Quality Assurance, a software-as-a-service technology that provides a digital platform to minimize food safety risks, according to the company’s opportunity sheet for the event.

Admiral, another software-as-a-service platform, aims to recover advertising revenues that are lost due to ad blocking.

AuxThera, an animal health company, focuses on products that improve the health of companion animals, according to its opportunity sheet. AuxThera’s flagship product, Trimauxil, is a dog food supplement supporting weight loss in companion dogs and is available by prescription through licensed veterinarians.

Captozyme, a biotechnology company, has developed therapeutic enzymes to prevent oxalate kidney stones, which comprises of 80 percent of stones formed. More than 3 million people suffer from recurrent stones in the US alone, according to Captozyme’s opportunity sheet. The company is also in position to launch its first medical food product that will have the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) FDA designation. This need holds a market potential of global sales ranging from $1.2 billion to $20 billion.

Florida Insect Control Group, a pest control device company, is preparing to sell environmentally safe, long-lasting and cost-effective solutions for control of both adult and larval mosquitoes. Its two lead products effectively control daytime-flying mosquitoes that are vectors for dengue fever and the Zika virus, according to the company’s opportunity sheet.  

Innara Health is a medical device and data company, has created the NTrainer System, which promotes early development of non-nutritive sucking skills in newborns and infants born prematurely, according to Innara Heath’s opportunity sheet. This system helps caregivers in neonatal and pediatric intensive care units to better understand how to treat infants with feeding challenges.

Ivy Creative Labs, Inc. is an eco-conscious clean-tech company that has developed a plasma infusion device — the BlueWave Cleaning System. This system provides a convenient solution for deodorizing and disinfecting items that are difficult to clean conventionally. In as little as five minutes, it removes odors and refreshes foul-smelling household items — from sports equipment to pillows and other items that won’t fit into a traditional washer and dryer.

Kaplan Schiller Research, LLC, is a biotech company focused on improving the availability of nematodes for natural insect control, according to Kaplan’s opportunity sheet. Nematodes are roundworms that occur naturally in soil and act as insect parasites. They are nontoxic to humans, specific to their target pests, and can be applied using standard pesticide equipment. Kaplan improves the dispersal and efficacy of these worms by tapping into their natural communication system.

OBMedical, a medical device company, has developed a wireless maternal-fetal monitoring system that can be used during labor and delivery to monitor the safety of the mother and unborn baby. The company’s first product is the LaborView Wireless Electrode System, is an external sensor system that measures contractions and the heart rates of both mother and baby during labor and delivery. LaborView is less invasive than other devices and allows mothers to have mobility during delivery, according to OBMedical’s opportunity sheet.

RAPiD Genomics is a DNA genotyping and genetic data analysis company that has developed genomic services for companies and researchers to quickly and cost competitively characterize genetic variations in plants, livestock and humans, according to RAPiD Genomics’s opportunity sheet. The company also offers downstream analysis of the genotyping data through statistical prediction to accelerate the genetic improvement of agricultural crops and livestock. Lastly, the company applies its genotyping method to detect viral infections and enhance animal welfare.

SATLANTIS, LLC, a satellite technology company, is commercializing constellations of microsatellites, devices that can detect changes on the Earth’s surface as small as 1 meter every 15 minutes at a fraction of the cost of a single large traditional satellite, according to the company’s opportunity sheet.  Compared to other small satellite companies, SATLANTIS’s vision rests on an ambitious plan for developing simple miniaturized payloads offering increasing remote sensing capabilities with high temporal frequency

SensorComm Technologies, Inc. is an environmental technology company that develops sensor systems specifically for emissions monitoring in the diesel transportation and “smart city” segments, according to its opportunity sheet.

Seropeutics is a biopharmaceutical company developing drugs to treat diseases such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Binge Eating Disorder (BED), according to the company’s opportunity sheet. Evidence from different animal studies has indicated that activating specific serotonin receptors causes reduced repetitive behavioral symptoms associated with these disorders while improving social interaction in patients with ASD.

Shadow Health, an educational software company, has developed Digital Clinical Experience, a tool for nursing and health education programs to increase efficiency in educators’ classrooms giving them more time to focus on student achievement, according to their opportunity sheet.

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