The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and its Foundation for Research Development (FRD) have found a unique partner to help expedite the transfer of the university's neuroscience research into the commercial marketplace in the Zucker Institute for Applied Neurosciences (ZIAN), a privately funded nonprofit agency built to expedite breakthroughs in neurological treatment technologies.
A top medical research university, MUSC is home to faculty, students and staff who are engaged in constant research on innovations in a variety of cores in health-care technology, treatment and protocols. While it is a separate 501c3 corporation, the MUSC Foundation for Research Development works closely with MUSC to help get the university's research efforts much-needed funding and to help get the technology innovations developed at the university into the hands of commercial entities that can continue the work.
“We evaluate inventions and technologies developed at the university, determining if there's a commercial opportunity, or an intellectual opportunity or patent opportunity,” Michael Rusnak, executive director of the MUSC Foundation for Research Development, told Palmetto Business Daily. “We'll try to find a partner, because the university isn't in a mode to commercialize, but we certainly can get the technology into the hands that can — a startup, or an industry partner that will take it the rest of the way to get it to market.”
The Zucker Institute started as the brainchild of the university's chair of neurosurgery, Dr. Sunil Patel, who was determined to find better ways to add an entrepreneurial drive to MUSC neuroscience research efforts. The Zucker family, who had had personal experience in having a family member who underwent neurological treatments, took an interest in the idea and provided $5 million in seed money to start ZIAN, with the specific intention of reviewing neuroscience technologies developed at MUSC.
“Basically, the Zucker family offered to put money into a pot, and in return to review all the neuroscience technology from MUSC,” Rusnak said. “If they like something, ZIAN funds the necessary research and work to develop the prototypes and move it along. We now get more inventions out of neurosciences than anywhere, because there is funding associated with that.”
Ted Bird, chief technology officer of the Zucker Institute, explains that the benefits of the partnership run both ways, as the Foundation for Research Development brings the knowledge of navigating the process of commercialization to the table, while ZIAN offers expertise on technical issues.
“We work very closely with FRD to take advantage of their expertise in intellectual property assessment and patent protection, technology valuation and licensing,” Bird told Palmetto Business Daily. “And we make ourselves available to consult on technical engineering issues for product development prototyping and manufacturing assessments.”
When ZIAN licenses technology from MUSC, 30 percent to 40 percent of the funds paid go to the inventor, while the remainder are reinvested in university R&D. But the partnership doesn't stop there. ZIAN often contracts with the university for the additional research and development needed for commercialization. Additionally, the university is eligible in some cases to collect royalties if a technology is successful.
The partnership has some early success stories.
“We have two technologies that we expect to translate to the commercial market within the next 18 months,” Bird said. “One is a novel cranial access port system for deep brain procedures. The second is a really exciting breakthrough technology to assist in the diagnosis of concussions based on a measurement of the blink reflex. We plan to create a spin-out company with this core technology in order to focus and move this technology into the market as quickly as possible.”
Such an economic development impact is a third value component, as startup companies who commercialize the technologies developed through the FRD/ZIAN partnership are beginning to sprout up around the university, creating high-paying jobs. One such is MitoChem, a multimillion-dollar endeavor working on a treatment for degenerative retinal disease.
“Hopefully it's a self-perpetuating situation, where the more you're good at it, the more inventors come out of the woodwork, and the more technology gets out there, and the reputation builds. And the ecosystem builds,” Rusnak said. “That's why we're working hard to raise awareness and let people know there's a lot of good research being done at MUSC, and a lot of it is getting commercialized.”