A potentially life-saving innovation developed by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln chemist is among 21 concepts across the country selected to receive support through a new National Science Foundation program that aims to guide promising scientific discoveries toward commercialization.
Professor Stephen DiMagno and his entrepreneurial team are among the inaugural recipients of NSF's Innovation Corps award, also known as the I-Corps. Winners were announced today.
"This award confirms the importance of the four years of work that went into helping to develop the technology," DiMagno said. "The selection process also helps validate the value of the technology for translation into clinically important medicines."
Each recipient team will receive $50,000 to begin assessing the viability of the technology for a new start-up enterprise. They also will complete a specially designed training curriculum and present their products to venture capitalists at the end of the six-month program. NSF specifically sought out discoveries that offer near-term benefits to society or the economy.
With support from a previous NSF grant, DiMagno developed a new way to make imaging agents for staging and managing certain cancers, including pediatric cancers, cardiac disease, as well as various neurological disorders, like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
"Our research program allows us to create imaging agents that previously were very difficult to synthesize or were unknown," DiMagno said. "Such compounds will allow us to understand each person's specific disease process better and apply optimum therapies on a patient-by-patient basis."
He said he got the initial idea to pursue this research as he contemplated how to get back to the reason he chose to become a chemist: to have a positive impact on people's lives through science.
"It sounds trite, but it's true," he said.
DiMagno had the help of Kiel Neumann, a graduate student from O’Neill who is pursuing a doctorate in organic chemistry. Neumann has been involved with the project from its infancy and helped establish a collaboration with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, an internationally recognized pediatric treatment and research facility based in Memphis, Tenn. It's there that he and DiMagno complete the final step in making the radioactive compounds. That's necessary because the compounds only have a half-life of 110 minutes, meaning to be effective they must be used immediately or they disappear.
Working to develop the technology has been rewarding to say the least, Neumann said.
"I think a lot of people see chemistry as this esoteric thing that nobody really knows about and it's all sort of voodoo magic," Neumann said. "But it's nice to see what you develop at the benchtop translate into impacting children’s well-being."
With its team format, the I-Corps program is structured to train the next generation of entrepreneurs to look at all aspects of high-tech business development, DiMagno said.
"The goal is that the student eventually will lead a company or have the training necessary to start his own company in the future," he said.
Besides Neumann, DiMagno's team includes Allan Green, a physician, research scientist and lawyer with extensive experience in the pharmaceutical industry, including the launch of imaging products. Green will serve as a mentor.
In his quest toward commercialization, DiMagno also has worked closely with NUtech Ventures, a nonprofit affiliate of the University of Nebraska that connects university researchers with the private sector. NUtech staff help manage the technology, file patents to protect the technology, and offer advice about how best to proceed with establishing a viable business enterprise around the technology.
DiMagno said he is happy about the amount of progress made to date and with the NSF grant in hand, is confident about the potential surrounding his discovery.
"I'd like to think we have arrived at the cutting edge of molecular imaging, starting from nothing, in four years," DiMagno said. "And that is really a testament to the amount of support we get from the people of Nebraska and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln."