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February, 2017

Academy Of Science And Engineering 2017 Inductees Mostly From Yale, UConn, UTC

Published on Hartford Courant / February 22, 2017

Dan Haar

Yale continues to dominate the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering with 11 of the 24 inductees in 2017, though that’s less than last year, when the university and medical center in New Haven claimed 13 of 23 inductees.

This year’s list of scientists and engineers receiving the lifetime achievement honor includes six newly elected members from United Technologies Corp., including Pratt & Whitney; five from UConn; one from Eversource; and one from Wesleyan.

The list includes the engineer in charge of the Eversource electric power grid in Connecticut; a clinically trained midwife and epidemiologist at the Yale School of Nursing who has made major contributions to screening and prevention of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases; and a Pratt coatings expert with 42 patents who has helped create more efficient jet engines.

The academy, chartered by the General Assembly in 1976 and modeled after the national academies of science, engineering and medicine, conducts research in the public interest in addition to honoring achievements. It can have as many as 400 members; they must live or work in Connecticut.

The academy is seeking nominations, due March 11, for the 2017 Connecticut Medal of Science, which is given in alternate years with the Connecticut Medal of Technology.

Last year’s recipient of the medal of technology was Cato T. Laurencin, a professor at UConn, an orthopedic surgeon, materials scientist, inventor and entrepreneur, and a former head of UConn Health and dean of the medical school. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation last year at the White House.

Nominations may be made to Richard Strauss, executive director of the academy, at (860) 571-7135; rstrauss@ctcase.org.

New members will be introduced, and the medal of science conferred, at the academy’s annual meeting and dinner on May 22 at UConn’s Rome ballroom.

New members are:

•Kenneth B. Bowes, vice president of engineering, Eversource Energy

•Claudio Bruno, research professor, mechanical engineering, University of Connecticut

•David B. Carter, senior vice president, engineering, Pratt & Whitney

•Frederick M. Cohan, professor of biology and environmental studies, Wesleyan University

•Robert M. Darling, principal research scientist, United Technologies Research Center

•Alan M. Finn, research fellow, United Technologies Research Center

•Alison P. Galvani, Burnett and Stender Families professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases) and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; director of the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis, Yale School of Public Health

•Puxian Gao, professor, materials science and engineering, University of Connecticut

•Jonathon Howard, Eugene Higgins professor, molecular biophysics & biochemistry, Yale University

Mark R. Jaworowski, fellow, physical sciences department, United Technologies Research Center

Ann E. Kurth, Dean & Linda Koch Lorimer professor, Yale School of Nursing

Andre Levchenko, John C. Malone professor & director, Yale Systems Biology Institute, Yale University

Baikun Li, professor, civil and environmental engineering, University of Connecticut

Alexander J. Majewski, fellow, UTC Aerospace System

Michael J. Maloney, manager, structural alloys, hot section materials and coatings, Pratt & Whitney

Jordan Peccia, professor, chemical and environmental engineering, Yale University

Peter A. Raymond, professor of ecosystem ecology, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Philip E. Rubin, senior adviser to the president and chief executive officer emeritus, Yale University

Alexander C. Russell, professor and director of graduate studies, Computer Science and Engineering Department, University of Connecticut

Zhong Shao, professor, computer science, Yale University

Frederick J. Sigworth, professor, cellular and molecular physiology with joint appointments in biomedical engineering and molecular biophysics and biochemistry, Yale University

David C. Steffens, professor & chair, psychiatry, University of Connecticut School of Medicine

Hugh S. Taylor, Anita O’Keeffe Young professor of women’s health and chair, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, Yale School of Medicine & Yale-New Haven Hospital

Sandra L. Wolin, professor of cell biology and molecular biophysics and biochemistry; director,Yale Center for RNA Science and Medicine, Yale School of Medicine

TIP company to treat hearing loss by regenerating inner ear hair cells

Anne Trafton | MIT News Office
February 21, 2017

Within the inner ear, thousands of hair cells detect sound waves and translate them into nerve signals that allow us to hear speech, music, and other everyday sounds. Damage to these cells is one of the leading causes of hearing loss, which affects 48 million Americans.

Each of us is born with about 15,000 hair cells per ear, and once damaged, these cells cannot regrow. However, researchers at MIT, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Massachusetts Eye and Ear have now discovered a combination of drugs that expands the population of progenitor cells (also called supporting cells) in the ear and induces them to become hair cells, offering a potential new way to treat hearing loss.

“Hearing loss is a real problem as people get older. It’s very much of an unmet need, and this is an entirely new approach,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and one of the senior authors of the study.

Jeffrey Karp, an associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Harvard Medical School in Boston; and Albert Edge, a professor of otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School based at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, are also senior authors of the paper, which appears in the Feb. 21 issue of Cell Reports.

Lead authors are Will McLean, a recent PhD recipient at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and Xiaolei Yin, an instructor at Brigham and Women’s and a research affiliate at the Koch Institute. Other authors are former MIT visiting student Lin Lu, Mass Eye and Ear postdoc Danielle Lenz, and Mass Eye and Ear research assistant Dalton McLean.

Cell regeneration

Noise exposure, aging, and some antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs can lead to hair cell death. In some animals, those cells naturally regenerate, but not in humans.

The research team began investigating the possibility of regenerating hair cells during an earlier study on cells of the intestinal lining. In that study, published in 2013, Karp, Langer, Yin, and others reported that they could generate large quantities of immature intestinal cells and then stimulate them to differentiate, by exposing them to certain molecules.

During that study, the team became aware that cells that provide structural support in the cochlea express some of the same surface proteins as intestinal stem cells. The researchers decided to explore whether the same approach would work in those supporting cells.

They exposed cells from a mouse cochlea, grown in a lab dish, to molecules that stimulate the Wnt pathway, which makes the cells multiply rapidly.

“We used small molecules to activate the supporting cells so they become proliferative and can generate hair cells,” Yin says.

At the same time, to prevent the cells from differentiating too soon, the researchers also exposed the cells to molecules that activate another signaling pathway known as Notch.

Once they had a large pool of immature progenitor cells (about 2,000-fold greater than any previously reported), the researchers added another set of molecules that provoked the cells to differentiate into mature hair cells. This procedure generates about 60 times more mature hair cells than the technique that had previously worked the best, which uses growth factors to induce the supporting cochlea cells to become hair cells without first expanding the population.

The researchers found that their new approach also worked in an intact mouse cochlea removed from the body. In that experiment, the researchers did not need to add the second set of drugs because once the progenitor cells were formed, they were naturally exposed to signals that stimulated them to become mature hair cells.

“We only need to promote the proliferation of these supporting cells, and then the natural signaling cascade that exists in the body will drive a portion of those cells to become hair cells,” Karp says.

Easy administration

Because this treatment involves a simple drug exposure, the researchers believe it could be easy to administer it to human patients. They envision that the drugs could be injected into the middle ear, from which they would diffuse across a membrane into the inner ear. This type of injection is commonly performed to treat ear infections.

Some of the researchers have started a company called Frequency Therapeutics, which has licensed the MIT/BWH technology and plans to begin testing it in human patients within 18 months.

Jeffrey Holt, a professor of otolaryngology and neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, says this approach holds potential for treating hearing loss, if its safety and effectiveness can be demonstrated.

“The ability to promote proliferation of inner-ear stem cells and direct their maturation toward an auditory hair cell fate is an important advance that will accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and facilitate translation of regenerative medicine approaches for restoration of auditory function in patients with acquired hearing loss,” says Holt, who was not involved in the research.

The researchers also hope their work will help other scientists who study hearing loss.

“Drug discovery for the inner ear has been limited by the inability to acquire enough progenitor cells or sensory hair cells to explore drug targets and their effects on these cell types,” McLean says. “We hope that our work will serve as a useful tool for other scientists to more effectively pursue studies of supporting cells and hair cells for basic research and potential therapeutic solutions to hearing loss.”

Karp, Langer, and Yin are also working on applying this approach to other types of cells, including types of intestinal cells involved in insulin regulation and control of the gut microbiota.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the European Commission, the Harvard-MIT IDEA2 Award, the Shulsky Foundation, and Robert Boucai.

Small Molecule, Big Hope for Healing Advanced Heart Failure

February 21, 2017 – Kim Krieger – UConn Communications

Dr. Bruce Liang, center, reviews a patient's case with physicians from the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center. (Lanny Nagler for UConn Health Center)

Dr. Bruce Liang, center, reviews a patient’s case with physicians from the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center. (Lanny Nagler for UConn Health Center)

Heart failure is a big problem. But cardiologist Bruce Liang believes it could be fixed with a small molecule.

Liang’s startup, Cornovus Pharmaceuticals, is developing a new drug based on a small molecule that could save people in the advanced stages of heart failure, people who would otherwise worsen and die. The potential medicine has been found effective in mice and in dogs, and could soon be tested in humans. But first it needs to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an investigational drug.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. and Europe have advanced heart failure but cannot, due to age or infirmity, get heart transplants or implants to help their hearts pump better. The outlook for these patients is grim. And for Liang, that’s unacceptable.

Liang is the dean of UConn’s medical school, but he’s also a researcher and practicing cardiologist. He became a cardiologist in part because of the immediate results it can give: a cardiologist can do a surgery that clears a clogged artery, or prescribe a drug that nudges blood pressure to a better level and give someone a brand new lease on life in just days. As a cardiologist, he’d like to be able to help even the sickest heart patients. He is constantly motivated by these sickest of patients, for whom a new medication is sorely needed.

So Liang, collaborating with National Institutes of Health (NIH) chemist Kenneth Jacobson, co-invented a potential new drug that may help even the most difficult cases of advanced heart failure. It has worked well in mice with heart failure conditions, and later in dogs, larger animals that are closer to human physiology. The drug seems to prevent heart cells from dying by affecting nitric oxide, a signaling molecule. And it does this without lowering blood pressure, which is a big disadvantage of similar drug candidates.

“That’s a big advantage, because that means if it’s true in humans with end-stage heart failure, you could go ahead and give it without worrying about dropping their blood pressure, which is a big no-no because they could die from low blood pressure,” Liang says. “To our knowledge, there’s not another drug out there in development that has this unique property.”

The new medication is a small molecule, which means it can be chemically manufactured (think of aspirin or penicillin) instead of having to be grown in a bacterial or animal cell (like insulin). Small molecules are easier to manufacture and potentially more affordable for patients than more complex drugs, and Liang’s new drug could potentially help many people. More than 500,000 people in Europe and the U.S. suffer from advanced heart failure that cannot be treated with surgery or other options. And less advanced disease affects more than five million people in those same regions.

But even small molecules need big money to become medicines. Cornovus has secured about $3.5 million in funding from Connecticut Innovations and from longtime UConn supporters Ray ’56 (CLAS) and Carole Neag. And the young company received critical early-stage support from UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research to seek patent protection and establish a startup. Cornovus rents space in UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) facility at UConn Health in Farmington.

Cornovus is also receiving funding for chemical manufacturing process development from the NIH through the Science Moving towArds Research Translation and Therapy (SMARTT) program. If all goes as planned, the company’s compound could get investigational new drug status from the FDA in summer 2018. With that in hand, they could start testing the drug in humans –  and hopefully someday soon, providing a better option for even the sickest heart patients.

Researcher Unveils Tool for Cleaner Long Island Sound

February 20, 2017 – Kim Krieger – UConn Communications

A new model released this week by UConn ecologist Jamie Vaudrey pinpoints sources of nitrogen pollution along Long Island Sound, and shows municipalities what they might do to alleviate it. Vaudrey presented her research Feb. 19 at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston.

Long Island Sound is an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean bordered by Connecticut to the north, New York City to the west, and Long Island to the south. The Sound is home to dozens of species of birds, 170 species of fish, and more than 1,200 species of invertebrates. Historically it has supported rich recreational and commercial fisheries for lobster, oysters, blue crabs, scallops, striped bass, flounder, and bluefish.

In recent decades however, those fisheries have suffered from excess nitrogen in the water. The extra nitrogen feeds seaweed and algae blooms that

Cladophora, a wiry green seaweed, grows abundantly in Little Narragansett Bay, fertilized by a high load of nitrogen. Dense mats of the seaweed use up all of the oxygen during the night, leaving none for the animals. Only animals tolerant of very low oxygen, ones who can essentially hold their breath through the night, are found in areas where this seaweed is thick. (Jamie Vaudrey/UConn Photo)
Cladophora, a wiry green seaweed, grows abundantly in Little Narragansett Bay, fertilized by a high load of nitrogen. Dense mats of the seaweed use up all of the oxygen during the night, leaving none for the animals. Only animals tolerant of very low oxygen, ones who can essentially hold their breath through the night, are found in areas where this seaweed is thick. (Jamie Vaudrey/UConn Photo)

use up oxygen, killing fish, and changing the ecology in ways that make it less suited to shellfish. This is called eutrophication.

But the nitrogen pollution – and subsequent fish kills and habitat degradation – isn’t distributed evenly throughout Long Island Sound. There are 116 rivers, estuaries, harbors, and bays along Long Island Sound, and the amount of nitrogen runoff varies enormously from one to another. Major sources of nitrogen include septic tanks and sewers, fertilizer from lawns and parks, agricultural practices, and atmospheric deposition from dust, rain, and snow.

There are lots of actions that citizens and towns can take to minimize the runoff. But they can only reduce it if they know it’s there in the first place.

There was very little data on nitrogen runoff from individual communities in Long Island Sound when Vaudrey and her colleagues first set out to look at the problem. They spent four years collecting data on where the nitrogen comes from in each of the 116 estuaries, rivers, and harbors, because while people may only care a little about Long Island Sound in the abstract, they care a lot about their own specific place. The beach where they swim, the pier they fish from, the coast they sail along, these are what people care about. So the researchers constructed a detailed model that anyone can download to look at their specific river, harbor, or bay.

“[The model] is a tool for citizens and managers to explore the impact of different actions,” says Vaudrey, an assistant research professor in marine sciences.

The model is in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. There’s a page titled ‘scenarios,’ where you can choose a specific community and alter the settings to see, for example, how changing the fertilizer applications in local parks will affect nitrogen runoff. There’s also a page called ‘interesting results’ that shows the 27 places with the highest load of nitrogen per water area. The Pequonnock River in Bridgeport, Conn. has the highest load, followed by rivers in Greenwich, Conn., Mamaroneck, N.Y., and Fairfield, Conn. But other harbors and rivers located near the worst offenders have dramatically lower nitrogen loads, showing that population density isn’t destiny, and that land use decisions, proper sewage treatment, and citizen education can make a difference.

The model has already been used by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT-DEEP) to identify eight Connecticut estuaries that need further study and nitrogen reduction plans, and the department intends to use it in an upcoming evaluation of septic systems, according to Kelly Streich at CT-DEEP’s Long Island Sound Study.

The Nature Conservancy has also worked with the model.

“Although great progress has been made cleaning up Long Island Sound in the last two decades, Vaudrey’s tool points to places where more work is needed to restore and protect healthy conditions. With this information, decision-makers can identify the most significant sources of nitrogen pollution and use proven solutions – such as upgrading and modernizing septic systems or reducing fertilizer use – to sustain clean water,” says Holly Drinkuth, director of outreach and watershed projects at The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.

Vaudrey hopes to work with organizations adept at outreach, such as The Nature Conservancy, Save the Sound, and the Long Island Sound Study, to better inform management decisions at the local level.

She is also starting work on a second model, one that looks at what happens in the coastal waters once nitrogen is introduced. Each bay and harbor is unique; how a bay responds to the nitrogen load depends upon how much freshwater flows in from rivers or streams, as well as the size and depth of the bay, and the height of the tides. The end goal is a model that predicts the nitrogen load needed to get the water quality the community wants in each bay.

The model can be found at: http://vaudrey.lab.uconn.edu/embayment-n-load/

Accelerate UConn Spring 2017 Winners Announced

Accelerate UConn, an NSF I-Corps Site to move technologies more quickly and successfully from the lab to the market

Accelerate UConn, an NSF I-Corps Site to move technologies more quickly and successfully from the lab to the market

Dr. Jeff Seemann, UConn/UConn Health Vice President for Research, and Dr. Timothy B. Folta, Professor of Management and Faculty Director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, are pleased to announce the teams selected to participate in the Spring cohort of Accelerate UConn, the University’s National Science Foundation I-Corps site. The following teams will receive special training and a $3,000 seed grant to help understand whether and how their technology might create customer value:

  • Dr. Abhishek Dutta, Ashwini Srishyla & Alexei Sondergeld (Faculty & Graduate Students), Drought Water Generator, School of Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Dr. Sandra Weller, Dr. Dennis Wright & Dr. Lorry Grady (Faculty & Postdoctoral Fellow), Small Molecule Inhibitors, Schools of Medicine & Pharmacy, Departments of Molecular Biology & Biophysics and Pharmaceutical Sciences
  • Dong Yu & Susan Jacob (Graduate Students), High Rate BioGas Conditioning, School of Business, MBA Program
  • Katie Boyle (Faculty), Novel Underarm Scrub, Center for Public Health & Health Policy
  • Caseem Ward (Undergraduate Student), Project Mobo, School of Business
  • Dr. David Han, Dr. Poornima Hegde & Veneta Qendro (Faculty & Graduate Student), Therapeutic Antibodies for Triple Negative Breast Cancer, School of Medicine, Departments of Cell Biology and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
  • Dr. George Lykotrafitis & Kostyantyn Partola (Faculty & Graduate Student) WBV Rheometer Project, School of Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering
  • Dr. Rampi Ramprasad, Dr. Huan Tran, Chiho Kim & Arun Mannodi Kanakkithodi (Faculty, Postdoctoral Fellows & Graduate Student), Polymer Genome Project, Institute of Materials Science
  • Faizan Khan, Ishita Banerjee & Natalie Miccile (Undergraduate & Graduate Students), Dermatat, Schools of Medicine & Business, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Departments of Mathematics, Physics, Immunology and MBA Program

The program includes seven weeks of intensive training to evaluate their business ideas and conduct customer discovery activities.

In cases where a single faculty member or student was accepted into the program, the AU staff helped identify appropriate Academic or Entrepreneurial Leads or Industry Mentors to round out the team.

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) jointly operate Accelerate UConn (AU).  As an NSF I-Corps Site program, AU was formed to foster entrepreneurship resulting in technology commercialization.  I-Corps Sites are academic institutions that catalyze the engagement of multiple, local teams in technology transition and strengthen local innovation.

For more information about Accelerate UConn, visit www.accelerate.uconn.edu or email accelerateuconn@uconn.edu

UConn incubator startup CaroGen Corporation part of $12.2 Million invested by Connecticut Innovations in the quarter

Rocky Hill, Conn. – February 2, 2017 – Connecticut Innovations (CI), the leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative, growing companies, today announced that it invested $12.2 million in equity investments in 31 companies and scientific projects during the three months ending December 31, 2016.

The investments leveraged an additional $58.4 million in capital to further support the growth of these companies. Of the $12.2 million, CI invested $6.6 million in bioscience and $5.6 million in information technology.

“We were pleased to be able to fuel the growth of more than 30 companies in bioscience and information technology throughout the quarter,” said David Wurzer, executive vice president and chief investment officer at Connecticut Innovations. “This quarter, we closed a deal with the inaugural VentureClash winner, Dream Payments.”

The second quarter of the fiscal year also included a number of key deals. CI closed:

  • A $1 million investment with the inaugural winner of VentureClash 2016, Dream Payments;
  • A $250,000 investment with Biohaven Pharmaceuticals, which leveraged an additional $39.8 million; and
  • A $1 million investment with CaroGen, a company that has been funded through CI’s pre-seed fund and the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund.

UConn to speed human limb growth

Published on EurekAlert  / Feburary 17, 2017

Lauren Woods

The University of Connecticut has joined the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute as a partner for the purpose of sharing its revolutionary human tissue and limb regeneration technologies.

The institute, which is headquartered in New Hampshire, aims to speed the growth and use of engineered human tissues and organs to meet the increasing health needs of the nation and its citizens, especially soldiers.

“We need to develop 21st-century tools for engineered tissue manufacturing that will allow these innovations to be widely available, similar to how a 15th-century tool – the printing press – allowed knowledge to spread widely during the Renaissance,” said the chairman of ARMI, inventor Dean Kamen.

ARMI is the 12th Manufacturing USA Institute, a national network of public-private partnerships intended to nurture manufacturing innovation and accelerate commercialization.

With public-private investment funding approaching nearly $300 million, ARMI brings together a consortium of nearly 100 partner organizations from across industry, government, academia, and the non-profit sector to develop next-generation manufacturing processes and technologies for cells, tissues, and organs.

“We are excited to collaborate with ARMI to lend our expertise to our country and push our regenerative engineering discoveries and breakthroughs closer to the bedsides of soldiers and Americans in need of vital medical care,” said Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, an internationally acclaimed surgeon-scientist who is chief executive officer of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (CICATS) at UConn, and director of the Institute for Regenerative Engineering and The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Center for Biomedical, Biological, Physical, and Engineering Sciences at UConn Health.

UConn is currently working toward regenerating a human knee within six years and an entire limb by 2030. Laurencin’s brainchild is the HEAL Project – Hartford Engineering A Limb – which was launched in November 2015 and is the first international effort for knee and limb engineering. Laurencin, whose laboratory research successes include the growth of bone and knee ligaments, is known as a pioneer in the field of regenerative engineering and material sciences.

At UConn, collaborators making the partnership with ARMI possible include innovative regenerative engineering scientist Lakshmi S. Nair, known for her research advances in growing musculoskeletal tissue at the Institute for Regenerative Engineering at UConn Health. The new ARMI initiative at UConn benefits from strong support by Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the UConn School of Medicine, Kazem Kazerounian, dean of the UConn School of Engineering, and Jeff Seemann, UConn’s vice president for research.

“In joining ARMI, UConn will contribute to the program’s mission to bring together the country’s most talented researchers to accelerate the advancement of tissue bioengineering and regeneration discoveries, while helping bring these promising, much needed breakthroughs to patients in their clinical care,” said Seemann.

Growing New Ventures at UConn

Mostafa Analoui, executive director of venture development., right, speaks with Ying Liu of ReinEsse LLC at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington on Feb. 8, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

UConn’s new director of venture development, Mostafa Analoui, right, speaks with Ying Liu of ReinEsse LLC at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington. Analoui says Connecticut has all the right ingredients for success in commercializing university research. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Mostafa Analoui joined UConn as executive director of venture development last October after an extensive national search, and now also serves as head of the UConn Technology Incubation Program. He has previously worked in academia, the corporate world, and investment banking, as well as launching a startup that is still in business today.
Mostafa Analoui, executive director of venture development, speaks with Kashmira Kulkarmi, chief scientist, and Alex Tikhonov, senior scientist at Azitra’s technology incubator lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington on Feb. 8, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Mostafa Analoui, executive director of venture development, center, speaks with Kashmira Kulkarmi, chief scientist, left, and Alex Tikhonov, senior scientist at Azitra’s technology incubator lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

He has been tasked with leading UConn’s efforts to identify disruptive technologies that are ripe for venture development, recruit entrepreneurs and talent to lead these startups, and raise early-stage and follow-on funding to grow these companies.

“We are thrilled that a seasoned entrepreneur and business leader like Mostafa Analoui is at the helm of UConn’s growing venture development efforts, including the Technology Incubation Program,” says Jeff Seemann, vice president for research at UConn/UConn Health. “UConn’s research and innovation pipeline is a critically important part of economic development in the state. It helps drive Connecticut’s innovation economy by commercializing life-saving technologies, supporting new companies, and creating high-wage jobs.”

Analoui has already begun working closely with faculty in Storrs and at UConn Health in Farmington. He recently discussed the special challenges and benefits of trying to develop new ventures in a university setting, and what it means for UConn and the state of Connecticut.

Q: Why is it important for universities to play a role in venture development?

A: Academic research is a powerful engine that generates innovative ideas for products and services with commercial potential. There are currently close to 10,000 patented products being sold based on technologies that originated in academic research labs. This potential offers a source of capital that can allow researchers to extend their work beyond basic research, and see their discoveries transformed into tangible products and solutions that could benefit society. Converting these ideas into solutions supports the University’s mission to enhance the social, economic, cultural, and natural environments of the state and beyond. It is also a reason that the state continues to provide support for growth programs like UConn 2000, Bioscience Connecticut, and Next Generation Connecticut.

The innovative research being conducted at academic institutions like UConn and UConn Health is also an important economic driver for the state and the nation. In the past 20 years or so, universities have launched approximately 11,000 companies that created 3.8 million jobs. The majority of these companies remain in the state where the original research was conducted and make important contributions to that state’s economy. To convert these ideas into products and companies, academic researchers need support from experts and access to resources that are common in the venture world, but are not traditionally available in a university environment. With my experience in academia, corporate settings, the startup world, and investment banking, I know I can help bridge that gap.

Q: What is different about venture development in a university setting? What are the biggest challenges?

A: What makes venture development at a university unique may also be its greatest challenge. By definition, research institutions are places where discovery and innovation happen daily. There is a constant flux of fresh ideas from great minds. This provides a unique environment where some of the greatest challenges facing our society are being tackled. The biggest challenge within a university setting is converting these ideas and discoveries into tangible solutions that can be used to address societal needs. The overall expectation for faculty is to educate, explore new ideas, and to further knowledge, but not generally to execute this conversion process. Federal research funding is increasingly competitive and typically does not support commercialization, but working to translate such research does present alternative funding options and offers the added, special reward of seeing a discovery applied to solve a real-life problem. That is another reason why support services like those provided through Technology Commercialization Services within the Office of the Vice President for Research are so critical to help advance research discoveries made at UConn to the marketplace.

Q: You have a background as an academic researcher in engineering. How did you end up in venture development?

A: Along with my teaching responsibilities, when I was a young assistant professor I was leading a major research program in oral and maxillofacial radiology. This work was successful using the standard measures of academic achievement: grants, publications, and training graduate students. But I was always intrigued to see that some of these scientific discoveries had transformative applications in the real world. It was also empowering to know that if our research demanded certain tools and devices that did not exist, we had the ability to try and develop them ourselves.

I gradually began to do more hands-on work, implementing some of the research ideas, collaborating with companies that were active in my areas, and learning about the business aspects of transforming scientific discoveries into commercial products. Soon a patent was issued for our work (“stereotactic radiography”), but because there were no university-based support services at that time, I had to form a startup on my own to commercialize the technology. Focused on product development and clinical services, this company is still in business today.

Although I received academic promotions and was awarded tenure, my work took me out of academia into the corporate world. This allowed me to increase my focus on innovation and product development with more robust resources. After going through some key corporate roles and transactions, I eventually found myself in the world of investment banking, primarily focused on company formation and funding. I’ve really enjoyed being engaged in multiple innovative companies, and am happy to continue this work at a top university like UConn.

Q: What is UConn’s reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship?

A: UConn has made positive gains in this arena, especially in regard to the growing Technology Incubation Program (TIP), which currently supports 35 startups in various fields. Since its inception in 2003, TIP has supported over 85 companies that have raised more than $50 million in grant funding, $80 million in debt and equity, more than $45 million in revenue, and have created over 100 full- and part-time jobs in the past year alone. With unprecedented investments from the state in initiatives like Next Generation Connecticut and Bioscience Connecticut, the momentum is building. We need to continue to support and grow the programs that currently exist at UConn and UConn Health to establish the University as a leader in research, education, service, and also commercialization.

Q: How does TIP fit in?

A: TIP is an established program in Connecticut that is known to improve the likelihood of startup success. The program provides a supportive environment with comprehensive startup services for UConn and UConn-related entrepreneurs that need access to state-of-the-art lab space and business resources to transition early-stage R&D projects into prototypes, products, and services. With the right support, these projects can grow and become a stand-alone company, or they can be very successful as technologies licensed to established corporations.

The access to state-of-the-art facilities and research infrastructure that TIP provides to member companies is unrivaled in Connecticut. The cutting-edge equipment and access to expensive scientific instrumentation is critical for our startups, who are working in a variety of highly specialized fields. The fact that our two major facilities are located on UConn campuses means that TIP companies can easily collaborate with the world-class researchers in Storrs or at UConn Health in Farmington, which keeps progress moving.

TIP provides valuable business support services at little or no cost to member companies. TIP startups have access to entrepreneurs-in-residence with proven track records who play a hands-on role to assure their scientific and financial goals are met. TIP also provides access to legal and financial resources for member startups, and often hosts internal educational events for startup CEOs and their employees. One of TIP’s most attractive benefits to startups is the visibility companies get in the investment community and among corporate players.

Q: What is the interest level from outside investors in university-based technologies? What can UConn do to increase this interest?

A: One of the key challenges for UConn and all Connecticut spinoff companies is limited sources of local investment capital. The quality of the research and technologies is not the problem. While Connecticut Innovations and a few local venture capital firms are actively engaged in reviewing and supporting UConn entrepreneurs, a larger and broader set of investment pools to address this critical need would help a larger number of promising technologies to reach the market. Currently, we are in the process of reviewing and interviewing an expanded group of regional investors in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts to engage them in TIP and other new ventures at UConn.

Q: What role does UConn Health play in UConn’s ability to commercialize technologies, support existing industry, and create new companies?

A: UConn is in a very special position, given its basic and applied research capabilities in Storrs and at the Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine at UConn Health. UConn Health covers a broad range of clinical and research areas across multiple disciplines. The recent investments from the state through Bioscience Connecticut have also significantly expanded its depth and reach, which has led to many unique opportunities for venture development. In fact, a large portion of our current TIP companies have health care or biotech focuses. These companies rely on direct and indirect involvement from UConn Health, as well as other collaborations with UConn faculty in Storrs. Based on my initial observations and conversations with academic and research leaders, I anticipate a significant increase in the quality and quantity of UConn Health-related ventures.

Q: Most recently, you were based in New York City, but you chose to take a job in Connecticut. What is your perception of the current climate for innovation in the state? What is the impact of initiatives like Bioscience Connecticut, and JAX Genomic Medicine locating at UConn Health?

A: In my opinion, the state is primed for big growth in this field. Top research institutions like UConn and Yale are engaged in many innovative research areas, with extremely high commercial value and potential returns. Combine that with the significant long-term investment made by the State of Connecticut to create and support an environment that is conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship, and the potential is there. Then consider the fact that JAX Genomic Medicine and a number of diverse biomedical, technology, industrial, and service corporations are also in Connecticut, and you have all the right ingredients for success. Achieving such success requires a targeted effort in the areas that can differentiate Connecticut in the competitive regional and national race, such as technologies that rely on microbiome research, for instance.

Q: What is your advice to faculty, students, postdocs, etc. who are interested in commercialization or forming new startups? What can they do to increase their chances of success?

A: I would recommend they seek the help of experts who can support them in this endeavor, because it requires a completely different skill set than those necessary to be a successful researcher or educator. I am always available, as are my colleagues in Technology Commercialization Services, to assist entrepreneurial faculty with their questions about the commercialization process and the market potential of their technologies. I would also encourage them to take advantage of the existing programs and resources offered at the University, which are intended to provide educational and follow-on support for students and faculty considering commercializing their innovations.

Venture development is a high-risk endeavor, with a rocky road full of surprises. It requires vision, tenacity, and the ability to work with a large and diverse network of experts with diverse personalities. While the journey starts with a great idea and recognition of societal needs, you also need to hit the road pitching the idea, as well as listening to and implementing feedback. In the end, it takes a team to convert novel ideas into tangible products, so get out there, shake hands, and network.

Martinez, Kang Honored for Outstanding Research on Investment Perceptions, Practices

Jose Martinez, left, and Namho Kang have both been presented with highly prestigious awards. (Nathan Oldham/UConn School of Business)

Jose Martinez, left, and Namho Kang have both been presented with highly prestigious awards. (Nathan Oldham/UConn School of Business)

Finance professors Jose Martinez and Namho Kang have both received prestigious recognitions for their separate research endeavors. 

Martinez won the BlackRock Prize, awarded to the best paper on capital markets/funds management/mutual funds for a paper he co-authored on “Measuring the Added Value of Stock Recommendations.” Using data from the Stockholm Stock Exchange, Martinez and his colleagues studied the value added by analysts’ recommendations.

They discovered how abnormal returns can be a misleading measure of the value of recommendations; and using the alternative measure of abnormal profits were able to compare the gains made by brokers with those made by their clients.

The award was presenting at the Australasian Finance and Banking Conference in Sydney in December. The conference brings together leaders in the financial community, international academics and industry professionals from the Asia-Pacific Region. Martinez collaborated with professors Anders Anderson, from the Swedish House of Finance and Howard Jones of University of Oxford.

Kang was awarded the PanAgora Asset Management’s 2016 Crowell Second Prize for his paper titled “Real-time Corporate Sales and its Effects on Earnings Management, Surprises and Drift,” which discovered that retail CEOs often downplay their company’s success when speaking to shareholders. The prize, in honor of the Boston-based firm’s founder, is one of the most well-known awards granted by asset management firms and is given for new and cutting-edge research that connects theory and practice.

Kang collaborated with professors Ronnie Sadka of Boston College, Kenneth Froot of Harvard and Gideon Ozik of EDHEC Business School of France. Their work was selected from more than 100 submissions and was described by the company as “truly outstanding” and noteworthy for its contribution to the science of economics and as a vital part of the development of optimal investment strategy.

“Both are highly prestigious awards,” said Professor Chinmoy Ghosh, finance department head. “It is a great recognition to the outstanding research conducted by these faculty members, and a tremendous inspiration for the junior faculty members and the Ph.D. students of the department. We expect both papers to attract large attention from the academic and practitioner communities.”

New test uncovers early hidden hearing loss

Researchers at the University of Connecticut have developed a new test to identify a specific, potential manifestation of hidden hearing loss in individuals whose standard hearing evaluations reveal normal or close to normal findings. The test, which may one day help hearing healthcare professionals identify early stages of hearing loss, detects deficits in the binaural auditory processing system, a complex system involving both ears and the brain in locating sounds and navigating noisy environments.

hearing testing equipment with headphones
New research goes beyond the
audiogram to detect hidden hearing loss

This outcome is the first in a series of a larger project focusing on binaural hearing conducted by Leslie R. Bernstein, professor of neuroscience and surgery and Constantine Trahiotis, emeritus professor of neuroscience and surgery at University of Connecticut Health. The two researchers have been colleagues for nearly 40 years and are considered leaders in the field of binaural auditory research. The results of their study were published in the November 2016 online issue of The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Binaural changes are an early window

While there are various reasons for hidden hearing loss — damage to the inner ear’s hair cells from noise is the most common — Bernstein and Trahiotis theorized that small neural losses for each individual ear might show only slight or even no measureable changes in some individuals’ audiograms, yet still produce a deficiency in their binaural auditory system. To test their hypothesis, the researchers studied 31 adults ages 30 to 67 with normal or near normal audiograms by measuring binaural changes in sounds at levels of loudness that are close to those experienced in normal conversations.

“The finding we have is that people with normal audiograms and who are fine with monaural or single ear hearing, have a deficit when it comes to binaural hearing,” Bernstein said. “We see it as sort of an early window to what is going on. If you want to catch something early, you might just want to test the binaural system.”

Bernstein explained that in binaural processing, the brain compares what’s going on in the left and right ear from a series of neural connections it receives from both. “Any deficit in the left or right could have a big impact on a system that’s looking for coincident occurrence of neural firing,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable system in terms of what it calculates. If you do anything to diminish its temporal precision, then you’ll see it in tests of the binaural system.”

Trouble understanding conversation is common

One of the chief complaints of people with hearing loss is that while they report that they can “hear” just fine, they have trouble understanding conversation in noisy environments—an ability that relies to a great extent on a normally-functioning binaural system. Bernstein believes his and Trahiotis’s research is another step forward in understanding the complexities of the human auditory system, which is an instrumental part of providing medical professionals with the insight they need to one day restore hearing loss.

“Before you can develop ways to redress hearing deficits, it’s important to understand how the normal system works in great detail,” he said. “So by understanding what the deficit might be, one might imagine future prosthetic devices to restore that particular function in a very targeted way.”

The team’s research is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Office of Naval Research as part of an effort to find ways to protect its workforce from their high risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss. If Bernstein has his way, his team’s research will eventually help detect hearing loss in its early stages across the entire hearing population with testing that is easy to administer.

What’s next?

“One thing we’d like to do is make behavioral tests like these very portable,” Bernstein said. “There’s nothing about the signal generation that couldn’t be done with the computing power of a smartphone. This entire procedure could be run on standard laptop with a sound card and earphones — nothing more elaborate than that.”

But don’t expect this to be standard testing protocol at your local hearing center anytime soon.

“Under laboratory conditions with standard paradigms, my colleague and I decided to look at people who had no more than any slight hearing loss to see if these kinds of laboratory tests would reveal any types of difference between these groups. And they did. Translating this into a test that people want to use easily and effectively will take some time.”

If you already know you have hearing loss or if you have noticed that you can hear, just not clearly, don’t delay. Comprehensive hearing tests that are simple and painless are available today. If you need treatment, today’s hearing aid technology is unparalleled and can help improve your quality of life. You can get started by visiting any of the professionals in our consumer-reviewed directory.