Kubanda Cryotherapy cofounder Bailey Surtees was building the foundation for her company as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) before she knew it. In 2016, she was researching how to make breast cancer treatment more affordable and accessible for low- and middle-income countries.
Surtees surmised that cryotherapy was the ideal solution because it doesn’t require a sterile operating room or anesthesia. Thus, she began developing a probe that could be used for this treatment.
Two years of painstaking work got the device to a place where it was effective enough to hit the market, but Surtees still had no concrete business plan in place. That’s when she learned about TEDCO’s Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII).
The MII is a program that funds efforts to commercialize technology coming from university-based research. It’s essentially a partnership between the state government – which supports TEDCO – and five research institutions: the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), JHU, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Not only has the MII model proven to be extremely effective, but it can be duplicated and is part of a growing trend across the nation. According to venture capital firm Osage University Partners, investment in university-based life sciences startups has doubled every two years since 2017.
“The idea of validating your market opportunity, and the focus on bringing technology out of the university and research ecosystem to being a viable product on the market, just fit perfectly with what we were trying to figure out at the time,” Surtees said of the MII.
Kubanda offers a cryoablation procedure to treat lumps, bumps, and cancer. Cryoablation eliminates cancer cells through the formation of intracellular ice crystals. Basically, the treatment involves inserting a cryoprobe into the tumor and creating freezing cycles until the tumor shrinks and dies.
“There are a lot of challenges there with supply-chain issues and bringing care to where people are, so that’s how we landed on cryotherapy,” Surtees said. “This technology really only exists for 5% of the world’s population, so we pinpointed a few innovations we could do within cryotherapy to make it extremely accessible.”
Kubanda received an MII Technology Assessment award of $115,000 from the MII in 2019, which enabled the completion of critical experiments that would encourage the formation of the start-up. Then, the company received a MII Company Formation investment of $150,000 the following year, which the company leveraged to prepare the product for a commercial launch, first in the veterinary space.
Now, Kubanda has ongoing clinical trials at JHU and is piloting its treatment in two Baltimore clinics. Surtees hopes to expand the pilot program as veterinarians also recognize the value of this technology.
“It’s exciting that we’re able to be on the market only four years after starting the company,” she said. “The network that they’re tapped into in the Baltimore ecosystem and greater DMV area is really useful. They’ve seen so many startups that they’re great at honing in your messaging.”
Kubanda’s journey through the program offers a glimpse of just how effective the MII has become since launching in 2012. At that time, founders had trouble getting their product to market even with some funding already secured.
“There wasn’t really any cohesive effort to push these technologies into the marketplace,” said MII Executive Director Dr. Arti Santhanam. “You could develop something, but there’d be a whole new machinery that was involved in getting the technology to the patient or consumer. These disjointed efforts met many hurdles that we feel we have been able to circumvent through the MII.”
To date, the MII program has invested roughly $46 million to help form over 120 companies. Those companies have gone on to raise more than $580 million in combined follow-on funding from investors. Dr. Santhanam said the MII is equivalent to an angel investor since it provides the first source of funding for many startups.
But that’s not all it does. The MII team can also connect founders with any program under the TEDCO umbrella, as well as resources from each university involved with the initiative.
“It’s not just about the monetary resources,” said Softhread cofounder Dr. Yelena Yesha. “It’s also about access to leadership, access to the business community and being able to get help in terms of setting up the business.”
Softhread is the information technology company behind Chios, a blockchain- and AI-enabled solutions platform that helps organizations operate more efficiently. Yesha began developing the technology in 2018 and was already aware of the MII program since she has been a UMBC faculty member for 20-plus years. Softhread has gone through all phases of the MII program and is currently focused on fundraising for expansion.
The MII program helps accelerate the process of starting a company and securing funds by both assessing all aspects of the product and providing feedback on how to improve it.
“We do a very deep dive on the technology, make sure the IP is solid, and we help de-risk the technology to a point where it’s ready for the company to present to other investors,” Santhanam said.
Beyond these financial and tech review services, MII also helps founders formulate an official business plan. This offering separates the MII from more traditional funding programs, and MII applicants affirm that this assistance is worthwhile.
Dr. Deepa Madan, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at UMBC, is developing rechargeable zinc-based batteries that can be used in wearable devices like watches, wireless headphones and health-monitoring devices. The batteries are enclosed in flexible plastic, making them durable and even enhancing their performance.
Dr. Madan received a MII Technology Assessment award of $115,000 in 2021. And, during her project, the MII team connected her with a consultant to learn the commercial aspects of pursuing a startup such as understanding customer needs, identifying a market, and learning how to properly assess her product.
“It was an excellent experience to understand how we can improve our batteries to make it a good fit for the commercialization purpose,” she said.
Helping researchers adopt a more business-oriented mindset is a massive bonus of the MII program since some founders may find shifting between science- and business-based approaches difficult.
UMD associate research scientist Dr. Cornelia Fermüller and associate professor of violin Dr. Irina Muresanu are developing VAIolin, a machine learning-supported violin instruction app that helps violinists perfect their posture, read music, and learn various playing techniques.
Dr. Fermüller had previously applied for the MII to support a robotics venture and figured it’d be a great way to pursue this new technology. She secured Phase I funding in August 2021, and the two cofounders hope to launch the free app in 2024.
“They helped us not only take this off, but got us thinking commercially, so that was very helpful,” she said. “We got the software developed and got the recordings done due to this funding. I wouldn’t have had it otherwise.”
After helping form more than 120 companies in just a decade, the MII program aims to continue pushing researchers to maximize their work. Last year, the Maryland legislature passed a bill to expand the MII program by adding “pilot” programs for Bowie State University and Frostburg University. These programs are set to launch in 2023.
“The MII has changed the culture of the ecosystem since scientists are learning more about what entrepreneurship means to them,” Dr. Santhanam said.