University of Utah surpasses the likes of MIT to become the nation's leader in new tech startups

Published: Tuesday, July 19 2011 8:00 a.m. MDT

Brittain said scientists with a product idea are given small micro-grants of around $5,000 to help develop their idea. His office reviews their research and larger grants are then awarded to develop a prototype. If the research scientist can prove the technology is commercially viable, they can then apply directly to the state for an innovation grant of up to $50,000. The state's return on its investment, Brittain said, comes in the form of royalty revenue, federal grants, quality local jobs and increased tax revenues.

From lice to lies

Brittain holds a clear plastic square, the size of a sugar cube. Embedded in it is a tiny microchip with even tinier micro-prongs. The chip is designed to be implanted in the brain to help patients with bladder incontinence. The researcher had trouble tuning the chip, but given a state grant he's been able to work toward creating a commercially viable version, Brittain said.

Elsewhere in the U.'s Research Park, the new startup LouseBuster has developed a new way to rid kids of head lice without using any chemicals. The device looks like a small vacuum cleaner with a comb attachment. Warmed air is used to dehydrate lice and eggs.

The idea was actually the brainchild of a bird expert, said LouseBuster CEO Larry Rigby. Dale Clayton was already familiar with lice that inhabit birds.

"One day his two elementary school-age kids came down with lice and he had to do the shampoo and whole treatment," Rigby said. But recently, many strains of lice have begun to develop a resistance to the chemicals commonly used in over-the-counter products. Clayton knew that lice do not survive long outside of their host, mainly due to dehydration. What if one could accelerate the process?

Clayton played with hair dryers, but found them too harsh. Still, his published scientific study of 350 kids showed his idea had promise. Using grant money, Clayton developed a prototype LouseBuster. The company recently received FDA clearance and is ready to set up manufacturing.

Rigby said with support from the U. and the state, his company has managed to grow, selling units in 12 countries and more than 25 states in the U.S. In exchange for the state's $300,000 investment, the U. will receive 5 percent of the company's royalties.

"It's a very, very friendly environment for a startup company to come in," said Donald Sanborn, president of Credibility Assessment Technologies. Sanborn, a venture capital investor himself, stepped in to head the business end of Credibility Assessment Technologies. The device was invented by John Kircher, who helped develop the technology used in traditional lie detectors.

The company has developed a new form of lie detection, using eye movements as an indicator of deception. In addition to several state grants, Sanborn said the U. has provided help with legal issues, marketing, expert mentoring and creating a business plan.

"If we were on the outside, none of that would be available to us," he said.

The company has drawn interest from federal government agencies, such as the U.S. State Department, as well as foreign groups, which want to use the technology to screen prospective employees.

It looks like their first customers may be the Mexican government, who want to screen government officials in an effort to combat corruption in that country.

Succeeding in business

The second part of the U.'s rise as a technology venture powerhouse comes via its business support for startups, Brittain said, adding it typically takes two and a half years to transition to a new company, and another four years for that company to begin generating revenue. A detailed business plan is needed to keep things on track and in perspective.

The Lassonde New Venture Development Center was started at the U.'s David Eccles School of Business in 2002, with a $13.2 million endowment from U. alumni, Pierre Lassonde, the former president of Newmont Mining Corp. The center has been integral in the U.'s new venture development success, said Lassonde Center director Troy D'Ambrosio.

The center uses scholarships to entice promising graduate students from various colleges of study to come together and build businesses around budding technologies.

"The idea was to bring science and engineering school students and business school students together and have them do something," D'Ambrosio said.

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