News Article

Michigan Tech 2017 Research Magazine: Commercialization
Source: Michigan Tech ( click here to go to the source)

Featured firm in this article: StabiLux Biosciences Inc of Houghton, MI

That's exactly what Yoke Khin Yap is doing with his high-brightness fluorophores technology and his spin-off company, StabiLux Biosciences Inc. Yap is a professor of physics at Michigan Tech.

High-brightness fluorophores are dyes that fluoresce in different colors and degrees of brightness. They are used in machines called flow cytometers to detect diseased cells in blood. StabiLux's high-brightness fluorophores can detect those cells in smaller amounts and much faster than has been possible up to now.

The tunable or adjustable brightness enables more cells to be identified without the colors interfering with each other. And the enhanced signals they emit enable detection of cells that are not detectable using current methods.
High-brightness fluorophores are fluorescent dyes that enable medical professionals to detect diseased cells in blood.
High-brightness fluorophores are fluorescent dyes that enable medical professionals to detect diseased cells in blood.

Christan Carson, vice president for research and development at Becton Dickinson Biosciences, calls Yap's invention "a game changer." It's taken nearly a decade of lab work, market research, and fundraising to change the game this far. But the hard work has paid off--the product could be in the marketplace within the next year, based on additional funding.

Yap was on sabbatical in 2008, working on a nanomolecule, when he realized that it had potential for use in biomedical imaging. Five years of painstaking lab work followed, supported in part by Michigan Tech's own Research Excellence Fund.

Finally, in 2013, Yap was ready to take the next step toward a marketable product. A $44,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's (MEDC) Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship launched that effort.

In 2014, Yap's team was accepted into the National Science Foundation's I-Corps team program, which trains scientists to do market research. The I-Corps project allowed his team to identify the market of flow cytometry and develop a viable business plan. Then the state stepped back in with grants from the Tech Transfer Talent Network (T3N), a collaboration among universities to support early-stage commercialization projects by providing funding for mentors-in-residence who assist in the business side of the research commercialization plan. At that point, in 2014, Yap established StabiLux Biosciences in partnership with Superior Innovations, a for-profit company founded with alumni donations to nurture Michigan Tech innovations.

"Commercializing university technology is a little like playing football."John Diebel

In 2015, the University pitched in again, with a Commercialization Milestone grant and funding from the College of Sciences and Arts and Yap's Department of Physics. The following year, the first angel investor appeared, followed by the MEDC's Business Accelerator Fund and MTRAC, the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization program.

By 2016, Yap's project attracted more NSF funding, through its Small Business Technology Transfer Program. Then MEDC provided $30,000 from its Small Company Innovation Program (SCIP), and Superior Innovations kicked in $10,000. In all, more than $500,000 of funding has been invested into the company since its inception. And the company is debt-free.

"As you can see, it takes a team to bring a research concept to the marketplace," says Diebel. The State of Michigan, federalagencies, private investors, and the University itself all are key players. There's another player now, thanks to the T3N program. It's Steve Tokarz, a mentor-in-residence. Tokarz comes from the business world. His job as mentor-in-residence is to be what he calls "a business development coach." He helped Yap on fundraising and crafted a business plan. He linked StabiLux's business to his extensive business and industry network. And he's serving as CEO-in-residence of StabiLux.

It's a new model for commercializing university technology. Tokarz explains, "You can't be a full-time faculty member and the CEO of a company. If you try, neither will be successful."
Nazimiye Bihte Yapici, a physics research assistant, and Steve Tokarz, CEO of StabiLux, are part of Yap?s research team.
Nazimiye Bihte Yapici, a physics research assistant, and Steve Tokarz, CEO of StabiLux, are part of Yap's research team.

It's another example of teamwork at play. "We needed a bigger network, more people, and resources," says Tokarz. Now he is handling the business aspects of putting Yap's high-brightness fluorophores on the market, while Jonathan Leinonen, a lecturer in Tech's School of Business and Economics, serves as vice president for operations. Nazmiye Bihte Yapici, Yap's research assistant, is principal scientist and Dongyan Zhang, a senior research scientist in Tech's physics department, is working as a collaborating scientist. Zhang and Yapici were the principal investigators and entrepreneurial leads of Yap's I-Corps team. Jim Baker, executive director of innovation and industry engagement at Michigan Tech, served as mentor to the team.

Tokarz is raising $600,000 in seed money for the company and is planning to raise $2 million more by 2018. And Yap is free to work on the technical details of his product.