Alexion Pharmaceuticals recent groundbreaking on a new $100 million headquarters is the centerpiece of New Haven's landmark initiative to reconnect the city's neighborhoods. It is also a glimpse at the process of achieving "overnight success" in the technology transfer field -- in this case, a success story that began modestly two decades ago.
We have an opportunity not only to reflect on Alexion's humble formation, but to look ahead to companies that currently reside, or will soon, in the portfolio of UConn Ventures-- now a pivotal player in determining Connecticut's future research-driven entrepreneurial standouts, grown from the labs of our state's flagship university.
Alexion began in New Haven's Science Park in 1992 in the shadow of Yale University. It was little more than an idea of what might be achieved by scientific discovery and an early commitment to guide and grow that potential. Slowly at first, buffeted by setbacks, uncertainties and halting progress, Alexion began to gain ground. They stuck with it. In time, they outgrew their small New Haven space and moved to Cheshire, where during the past decade, spurred by the discovery and development of Solaris, they have spectacularly become among the world's most innovative and successful biopharmaceutical companies.
History could repeat at any moment at UConn, as the university redefines and revitalizes efforts to encourage entrepreneurial discovery. More than anything, we need the collective patience to sustain an effective pathway to commercialize scientific discovery and stay the course. Such cutting-edge efforts rarely hit paydirt overnight, but as Alexion demonstrates so dramatically, solid growth and new ground can, overtime, be achieved.
UConn Ventures, aligned with the University's Office of Economic Development, creates business start-ups by seeking out university-based research innovations, guiding the development process, soliciting funding and recruiting management. It is a subsidiary of the UConn Foundation. Financial benefits achieved by the resulting start-up companies accrue to the individuals whose research innovation is at the core of the start-up, and UConn.
Just two months ago, the university named Alphachromics as the "Top UConn Start-Up Company" at annual awards ceremonies attended by state business, academic and government leaders, reflecting a revitalized university-wide commitment to commercialization initiatives.
Alphachromics was formed in 2010 by UConn Ventures to commercialize the electrochromic innovations developed in the lab of Greg Solzing, professor of organic and polymer chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and the Institute of Materials Science. The technology changes the light transmittance properties of a substrate by the application of voltage and/or current.
The company's low-cost color-changing conductive polymers can be applied to products as diverse as energy-efficient windows, tunable eyewear (goggles and sunglasses) and high-performance switchable fabrics. Alphachromics is currently working with development partners in industries including eyewear and apparel to develop and adapt their technology for use in a range of high-volume consumer, commercial and military applications.
And just last month, LambdaVision Inc., a bio-tech start-up launched by UConn Ventures, received a pre-seed funding commitment of $110,000 from Connecticut Innovations.
LambdaVision is developing a high-resolution, protein-based retinal implant intended to restore sight and improve the quality of life for the millions of people who have been blinded by photoreceptor degeneration in the outer retina -- specifically, individuals affected by age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.
The company's core technology was developed by Robert Birge, Ph.D., a UConn professor of biological and physical chemistry, who, along with students in his lab, founded LambdaVision in 2009.
There are other examples in the UConn Ventures portfolio, at various stages of development. Led by a distinguished and experienced Board of Directors with significant industry background and entrepreneurial expertise, the staff of UConn Ventures works closely with faculty to evaluate their research. It is an exacting task, fraught with perils but brimming with potential.
Working together, we navigate each stage of development, as UConn Ventures provides structure, direction and momentum to the evolving process in critical areas: developing the business model, aligning the intellectual property assumptions, raising the necessary capital, and recruiting key management personnel. Beyond start-up guidance, UConn Ventures also provides back office support, in areas including accounting, legal, tax, and human resources.
Every aspect matters, and integrating effectively and efficiently can be the difference between a near-miss and a solid start.
In accepting well-earned accolades, Mark Bertolami, CEO of Alphachromics, observed that the company "hopes to establish a performance track-record that rivals the UConn women's basketball team." Just the day before, they had won their eighth national championship.
There was a time when such accomplishment was seen as remote at best, more than likely impossible. As with Alexion, by staying the course, investing wisely, and methodically putting in place the necessary talent, admirable success has been achieved.
As UConn Ventures and the would-be entrepreneurial enterprises that turn to it for direction respond in the years ahead, patience and perseverance with our collaborative endeavors will similarly prove to be virtues in the pursuit of realizing great possibilities.
R. Mark Van Allen is president of UConn Ventures.