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From Lab to Real Life

March 31, 2019
woman and a man in a lab
Chemical engineering Associate Professor Katie Dongmei Li-Oakey discusses her research and business plans with College of Business Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship Matthew Fox.

The Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center  helps promote and protect intellectual property with market potential.

By Micaela Myers

Before Department of Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Katie Dongmei Li-Oakey came to the University of Wyoming, she worked in industry, including as a senior process engineer and team leader of the 193 nm photolithography module at Intel and in new product development for successful startups. “I’ve been involved in product design, prototyping and high-volume manufacturing for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 100,” she says.

Since coming to UW, she has not stopped innovating. “My group and I work on nanomaterials with applications in energy, water treatment and health care,” she says. That work led her to seek assistance from the Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center. 

Ideas for patentable inventions and copyrightable materials are often conceived during research conducted at UW. The Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center’s mission is to help ensure that those inventions and materials are used for the public good through patent and copyright licenses. The center also provides service to faculty, students and citizens in technology transfer processes. In 2017, 72 files were patented with the center’s help, 160 intellectual agreements were signed, and there were 144 total new invention disclosures.

“When I have a technology where I’m confident about its commercialization future, before I publish, I normally file a provisional patent,” Li-Oakey says. “I work with the tech transfer office, and they work with patent law firms to convert that into a full patent application.”

Engineering the Future

Li-Oakey’s current startup is called TLS Materials LLC. Her motivation for starting the company came when a top player in the area of one of her intellectual property patents reached out for a large quantity of materials used for electrical catalysis in PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) fuel-cell cars. Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and Nikola are all selling PEM fuel-cell vehicles.

One of TLS Materials’ goals is to make such catalysts more affordable without compromising durability. “That’s one of the technologies upon which I worked with the tech transfer center,”  Li-Oakey says.

Another top player in the industry is also interested in these materials. She hopes to create a strategic partnership with a large company to grow her technology. Li-Oakey’s research group currently includes six graduate students, two postdoctoral researchers and five undergraduates. One Ph.D. and two master’s students recently graduated.

“I want to use the company to provide job opportunities for our students and hopefully  grow and build,” she says. “Another component  is to get their feet wet on how to run a company.”

In addition to working with the Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center, Li-Oakey is working with the Wyoming Small Business Development Center’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program  to pursue a Department of Energy grant.

Li-Oakey believes Wyoming’s access to internet and transportation infrastructure—among other things—gives it a geographic advantage for manufacturing. In addition, the university provides a trained workforce.

“We have quality graduates from all different disciplines,” she says.

Powerful Proteins 

Don Jarvis, Department of Molecular Biology professor and president of the university spin-out biotechnology company GlycoBac LLC, has worked with the Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center on more than a dozen patents over the years.

For example, GlycoBac recently partnered with MilliporeSigma, a multinational conglomerate and subsidiary company to Merck KGaA in Germany, to offer a rhabdovirus-free insect platform for viral vaccines and gene therapy development.

“We are excited to have negotiated an exclusive licensing agreement with this major company,” Jarvis says. “This licensing agreement allows a partnership in which GlycoBac will provide a virus-free insect cell line and MilliporeSigma will provide a chemically defined cell growth medium, which they will market, license and distribute worldwide as  a bundled product.”

For the past 30 years, including more than 20 at UW, Jarvis’ basic research has focused on developing insect virus/insect cell systems for recombinant protein production. Jarvis spun out GlycoBac in June 2011 after his student, Christoph Geisler, won UW’s John P. Ellbogen $30K (now $50K) Entrepreneurship Competition.

Of the Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center, Jarvis says: “They’ve always been supportive. They’ve always pursued the patent litigation if we’ve agreed it would be productive. UW licensed a whole suite of these patents to GlycoBac, and they’re key because the people who would potentially invest in a company like GlycoBac like to see that intellectual property.”

GlycoBac houses its virus-free insect cell line in a lab at the Laramie campus location of the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC). “The WTBC also connected us with the Phase 0 SBIR program in the state,” Jarvis says. GlycoBac has received six Phase 0 awards totaling $30,000, which were leveraged to generate $2.4 million in federal Phase I and Phase II SBIR grant dollars. “In turn, those funds have allowed GlycoBac to earn nearly $350,000 providing services and licensing materials in the private sector. The seed money has been a great help and yielded superb returns over GlycoBac’s seven years in business.”

Although an expert in molecular biology, Jarvis has no formal business education or training, and so he also finds WTBC’s business education programming helpful.

GlycoBac is currently working on a couple of exciting projects. “We are working on enhancing the functions of HIV-specific therapeutic antibodies for use in recently infected people,” Jarvis says. 

In addition, the company is pursuing research that may lead to a more effective and less expensive flu vaccine. “The vast majority of today’s flu vaccines are manufactured in chicken eggs. Certain structural aspects of flu vaccines produced using this platform differ from those of native human flu viruses,” Jarvis says. “We can use our insect virus/insect cell systems to produce vaccines that are more authentic. We’ve applied for a large Phase II SBIR grant from the National Institutes of Health that would fund a project in which we hope to demonstrate these structural differences matter. If we get the expected results, we’ll have a new flu vaccine that could be better and cheaper than currently available vaccines.”

The research also has applications for many other vaccines and antibodies, as well as other biologics.

“I’m excited about our progress, and I think GlycoBac is on the cusp of some really cool things,” Jarvis says.

Tech Transfer

Jarvis and Li-Oakey are just two examples of the faculty, staff, students and entrepreneurs who use the expertise of the Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center.

In October, patent attorney Henry Nowak joined UW as the new director of technology transfer and business resources. Nowak and his team will provide guidance and resources to help individuals identify, promote and protect intellectual property with market potential. The center’s work plays a key role in UW’s plans for enhanced entrepreneurship and tech transfer.

“I will look at where are we now, what kinds of things can we do better and what kinds of things we can add to make sure that we’re addressing various stakeholder needs,” Nowak says of his plans for the center. 

Of UW’s efforts, Li-Oakey says, “I think the climate is positive in the entrepreneurship area—encouraging the big picture of things, bridging research innovation with commercialization and diversifying the state economy.”

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