Decades ago, long before gene therapy was on the public’s radar, University of Florida (UF) scientists were meticulously working toward a breakthrough.
Now technologies such as adeno-associated virus (AAV)-based gene therapy, which delivers new genetic material to human cells, have been transferred to all areas of the medical sphere-from pharmaceutical companies to healthcare facilities. Doctors are treating genetic diseases on an international scale and jobs are being created, all because of professors and students at a state university who have vision (and the resources to execute it). This is the power of tech transfer; it creates a life-changing ripple effect across the global landscape.
Tech transfer at UF: A promising prototype for the nation
UF Innovate has served as a model for universities nationwide looking to further their tech transfer efforts. UF connects innovators with entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts, while its business incubators (The Hub and Sid Martin Biotech) take research discoveries from the laboratory to the market. Since its inception in 1995, UF Innovate has generated more than $10.4 billion in private investments, launched upwards of 300 startups via tech licensing, and created 7,900-plus startup jobs.
One prime example of this success can be found in Alachua, Florida, which is only a short drive from the UF campus in Gainesville. There, the power of tech transfer is in full force with an AAV-based gene therapy company called Lacerta Therapeutics, which is known for providing novel therapies to people with rare genetic disorders. Lacerta was born in UF’s Sid Martin Biotech incubator six years ago, and its growth has resulted in about 1,000 Alachua-based jobs.
“Lacerta is an example of what happens when cool tech comes out of a university, we incubate and massage it a bit, and we offer guidance and industry knowledge that leads to business success,” said Jim O’Connell, the assistant vice president for commercialization and the director of the office of technology licensing at UF. “Because of this, Alachua is becoming a center for biotech. We are showing what can be done in a given ecosystem and how we can build on the assets we have.”
Backed by about $20 million in annual funds from Gatorade (which was also created in a UF lab in 1965), UF’s tech transfer initiatives have more financial leverage than those at many other research universities. Judicious reinvestment of these funds helps create a platform for the future of tech transfer and economic development (see sidebar about how universities without this financial advantage can still support successful tech transfer programs).
“Patents, for example, are really expensive, and quite a few universities in the country don’t even have a patent budget. So, when these universities come up with something patentable, they have to beg for funds from deans and central administration, whereas I have people on my team that directly make those decisions every day,” O’Connell said. “If you have millions to reinvest, it certainly makes the job easier. But, for those universities that don’t, the key is to reinvest wherever you can-into the whole system, even if that is just starting with hiring the best people you can.”
The return on investment from channeling funds into university tech transfer programs throughout the nation is clear. Alachua-which is often described as a “sleepy” town of less than 11,000 people-is proof. The small Florida city is now drawing attention from massive Fortune 500 companies because of the booming presence of Lacerta and other up-and-coming startups based on UF technology.