From first time disclosers to seasoned inventors, the Technology Licensing Office’s Ascender Grant program has been a key part of supporting innovation at the University of Utah. In fiscal year 2023, the office funded 11 projects for a total of $880,213.
While fiscal year 2024 just began in July, we are well on our way to exceeding last year’s numbers.
Keep reading to learn about some of the projects we have funded through the grant.
Translating fundamental science for impact: Minna Roh-Johnson
University of Utah biochemistry assistant professor Minna Roh-Johnson realized a project they were working on in her lab had significant potential to impact real people but it was too risky for traditional funding sources. “What we needed was more data, but it takes so much money and time to generate those data, and we had no funding streams coming in.”
In the lab, Roh-Johnson and her team of students and collaborators are working on understanding how cells make decisions and how that process could potentially be used to prevent metastasis in certain cancers. With their research they are simultaneously answering fundamental questions of how a cell functions and figuring out what kind of impact that research can have outside the lab.
After disclosing the technology earlier this year—Roh-Johnson’s first disclosure—she applied for and received Ascender Grant funding, which helps U inventors bridge the funding gap between research and commercialization.
The collaboration network: Lars Laurentius and Albert Park
University of Utah professors Lars Laurentius and Albert Park are working to develop a faster test to screen for congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV) in newborns, because current methods have a relatively long turnaround time and outcomes are largely improved if treatment occurs early in life.
There is hope for children with CMV: an antiviral therapy that could potentially prevent future hearing loss and other developmental effects from the disease. “If we are going to administer these medications, it has to be in the first month of life,” Park said. “That’s where the motivation and where the challenge is for us.”
The team received an Ascender Grant to help fund further development and validation for the test. “We had some results previously that were able to detect the presence of CMV using a lateral flow assay. The missing pieces to make this technology more attractive is really to make it work in bodily fluids such as urine or saliva,” Laurentius said.
Finding applications from outer space to your face: Jungkyu (Jay) Kim
University of Utah mechanical engineering professor Jungkyu (Jay) Kim and his lab have developed organ chips that use a cell culture to form tissue, which are then subject to static or dynamic mechanical motions, such as stretching or bending. This process replicates the microphysiological environments found within various human tissue. These chips can be made to have the curvature of a cornea, the motion of a lung or heart valve, and more.
After disclosing the invention, Kim received an Ascender Grant to help improve the organ chip technology to make it more appealing and useful to industry partners, so Kim and his team set out to increase its throughput.
Kim’s team started with a chip that could do one test at a time, and with the grant they were able to transition the organ chip from the single test platform to a 96-well plate that biologists use pretty much every day. “Then we can test drugs A to Z, and also different concentrations, and then we can get conclusive results with a single experiment,” Kim said.
The path toward commercialization: Matthew Rondina
University of Utah internal medicine professors Matthew Rondina and Jesse Rowley developed a technology to screen for diseases that don’t currently have effective, established screening methods, like ovarian cancer, or diseases where a diagnosis can only be made after an invasive procedure. The technology is based on “the idea that we can use platelets and more specifically changes in platelet gene expression to detect very early disease onset or progression,” Rondina said.
Rondina and Rowley disclosed their invention and were introduced to a resource they were unaware of at that time: the Ascender Grant program.
The team completed the first phase of Ascender Grant funding and recently began a second phase. “It allowed us to take our concept and develop it to the stage where we have people behind this that are really excited about the technology and where it's ready for further development within the structure of a company,” Rondina said. “Without that Ascender Grant, we would have been significantly delayed in this process.”