By Linda P.B. Katehi
When I started as Chancellor at UC Davis in the summer of 2009, one of my top goals was to work with our faculty and others to create a robust environment for commercial startups that could be spun off from some of the sophisticated research conducted on our campuses in Davis and Sacramento.
Thanks to hard work from many devoted and talented faculty, students and staff, as well as support from partners in the private sector, I believe we are well on our way toward that goal and nicely positioned for great future success.
Such startups are valuable for a number of reasons. They create jobs and spark economic activity in our region. They can be a source of revenue for the university. And they can have a positive societal impact consistent with our mission as a land grant university of trying to improve the quality of life for people in our state and nation.
Consider the example of Tule Technologies, a still-small company based in San Francisco that develops and manufactures sensors to measure evapotranspiration in agricultural fields for water management.
Tule was founded last year by Tom Shapland, who fine-tuned the technology as part of his UC Davis PhD project. He worked with his PhD adviser, Kyaw Tha Paw U, who conceived the watering monitoring system.
Shapland also did his undergraduate work at UC Davis, majoring in viticulture and enology, so it’s no surprise that many of Tule’s customers are part of the California wine industry.
As California’s drought continues and our state’s farmers are under increased pressure to use water more efficiently, Tule seems poised for success. Its equipment is already monitoring irrigation efficiencies in farm fields up and down the state.
A Record Year for UC Davis Startups
The company was part of our record year for startups in 2014, one of 14 new technology companies whose origins are tied directly to UC Davis labs and research. The number for 2014 was the largest ever for the university in one year and a near doubling from a year earlier.
Another exciting UC Davis startup is Molecular Matrix Inc., which is developing three-dimensional cell culture systems that hold great promise for regenerative medicine applications.
CEO and Molecular Matrix Founder Dr. Charles Lee discovered the potentially ground-breaking technology while working as a researcher and institute director at UC Davis. His company has six employees, and he also puts some 30 UC Davis student interns to work in the firm’s activities concerning research, clinical, manufacturing, finance and sales and marketing.
After Lee made his scientific discovery, he got assistance from UC Davis experts who helped him negotiate the patent process, intellectual property development, legal issues and how to attract investors. He also had help from our Venture Catalyst program, which we established two years ago in the university’s Office of Research to assist faculty with some of the entrepreneurial skills needed to get a startup going.
Another place would-be entrepreneurs can find help is at the high-tech business incubator associated with our College of Engineering. It’s called the Engineering Translational Technology Center, or ETTC for short.
One of its first “graduates” was Dysonics, an audio technology firm founded in 2011 by UC Davis Professor Engineering Professor Ralph Algazzi; Robert Dalton Jr., a UC Davis graduate with a masters degree in engineering; and Richard Duda, a former research scientist at the university.
The company develops and manufactures wireless sensors to create 3-D sound through earphones. It plans to market its technology to a variety of users interested in superior audio quality.
After less than a year of being nurtured by the Engineering incubator, Dysonics was able to find its own investors who put up $750,000. That helped enable the company to strike out on its own.
New partnerships and collaborations are also being formed between the university and others dedicated to nurturing startups that can lead to wide-ranging benefits.
One recent example is the company DtoR, which developed a fast and powerful analysis of transcription, or copying DNA into RNA. According to the company started by Paul Feldstein, an assistant project scientist at UC Davis, the technology has a variety of potential applications, from use in biofuels to vaccines for certain viruses. DtoR was the first tenant within the university’s recently launched life-science incubator, a collaboration between Venture Catalyst and HM.CLAUSE, a Davis-based company.
The idea is to create and nurture enough of an innovation and startup culture that it becomes ingrained in the makeup of the university. Since 2003, we’ve had more than 60 startups based on UC Davis research breakthroughs, with recently formed companies resulting in hundreds of quality jobs in our region.
In additional to strengthening our technology transfer programs and adding incubators, we also established the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in our Graduate School of Management to provide leadership in some of these efforts.
I have no doubt that with the addition of such strong infrastructure and support programs, we will have more startups moving forward with impressive results and impacts for our region, the state and UC Davis.