Innovation comes from more than flashes of insight. A few years ago, Denise Polacek began experiencing hot flashes, which sparked the birth of an innovative solution for this widely encountered problem. "Far fewer women are willing to take hormones today," says Polacek, "and hot flashes are the number one reason they take them." A hot flash heats up the skin by 1.5° F in just 30 seconds. "Nothing else does that," says Polacek, who has a PhD in molecular genetics and cell biology, background in cardiovascular research, and business training from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
Polacek founded Life Quality Technologies in August 2006 that focuses on a new way to beat the heat of a hot flash. She is working on a wearable device (with dimensions similar to a heart-rate monitor) that tracks surface temperature and automatically turns on thermoelectric cooler when needed. She is commercializing the product with the help of a Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) program called BioLaunch611+ KIZ.
Pennsylvania created the KIZ to promote academic technology transfer and entrepreneurship. To work with a KIZ, a company must meet specific criteria, including being less than eight years of age, lying within the geographic boundaries of a KIZ, and working in the industrial sectors chosen by the KIZ. Southeastern Pennsylvania includes six KIZs, and four include a life science component.
BioLaunch611+ KIZ began operation in September 2006. "In the first 10 months," says Karen Hanson, executive director, "we've helped 14 companies - more than we anticipated." Through a due-diligence process in which a company makes a presentation to and receives a report from experts in science, technology, and business, BioLaunch611+ KIZ "provides extraordinary advice, several thousand dollars' worth," Hanson says. In addition, each company is given a mentor.
"I talk with my mentor about three times a week," says Polacek. BioLaunch611+KIZ also connected Polacek with a manufacturing expert, a corporate attorney, and a patent attorney. "I feel like I have a whole team," she says.
The Bucks County KIZ specializes in life science and bioinformatics. "We're not just a piece of real estate; we're a knowledge community," says Tim Block, professor of microbiology and immunology at Drexel University and president of the 10-acres and more than 100,000 sq. ft. that make up the Pennsylvania Biotech Center of Bucks County, which hosts this KIZ. Currently, 10 companies and three nonprofit research organizations reside at the center, which brings it to nearly 70% occupancy after only one year of existence.
Many companies at the Bucks County KIZ focus on cancer and antiviral research, which is not surprising given the Hepatitis B Foundation's presence at the center. Block points out other areas of interest, too, including biofuels. This KIZ also runs a training program that Block calls "Who wants to be an entrepreneur?" The Bucks County KIZ even takes students right out of college and gives them experience in biotechnology or medicine. "They get paid as research assistants," says Block. "They also participate in a structured program with seminars, and each assistant gets a mentor."
The newest southeastern Pennsylvania KIZ started in Chester County in January 2007. It will focus on life science, biotechnology, and information technology. It's already working with nearly 20 companies in the area. This KIZ provides companies with many benefits, including connections to accounting services, funding resources, human-resource benefits, and legal experts. The Chester County KIZ also provides internship connections, money by subsidizing training grants, and other services including real-estate support.
The University City KIZ, founded in 2005, also includes a life science focus, which is boosted by its powerful collection of partners: BioAdvance, Drexel University, Thomas Jefferson University, University City Science Center, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and the Wistar Institute.
After working as the manager of nanotechnology and licensing at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Technology Transfer, Hugo Fitzgerald took the executive director position at University City KIZ in 2007. "We are a preparatory agency for all future funding," FitzGerald says. "If you're in the idea stage, we can help you develop that into a coherent business plan and pull together the region's resources." That includes connecting emerging entrepreneurs with the regional technology transfer and small business development offices as well as helping them with licensing agreements and financial forecasting.
The University City KIZ relies on a wide range of funding. It received $250,000 from the state of Pennsylvania in its first year, and another $184,500 in its second. Commerce Bank also provides the University City KIZ with $50,000 each year. Fitzgerald says, "That's really helped with underwriting lots of programs. For example, we run programs to educate new companies and to help them create added value."
In January 2008 the University KIZ plans to start a microvoucher program in conjunction with the Innovation Partnership, which describes itself as "a consortium of economic development and business assistance organizations located throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." In the microvoucher program, a company that is licensing a technology through one of the University City KIZ partners can get help underwriting a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. "We help them develop and write the grant proposal," explains Fitzgerald.
In just two years, the University City KIZ has worked with 160 companies, 60 of them directly related to the KIZ. Three of these companies - Phenotech, Vasculab, and Neuro Diagnostics Devices - even received $50,000 startup grants. The University City KIZ also helped a company that works on diagnostics for Alzheimer's disease. This company leveraged some of its KIZ money to acquire state funding, and it also received funding by providing equity to a private source.
"We also subsidized the cost of promising companies going to BIO [Biotechnology Industry Organization]," says Fitzgerald, "which really puts them in the spotlight of the national and international biotech community." He adds, "Our University City KIZ companies have been awarded over $400,000 in tax credits and leveraged over $15 million in funding."
The University City KIZ also works with companies beyond its geographic bounds, and even outside the country. As an example Fitzgerald mentions working with a Spanish company that established space at the Science Center. He notes that many Indian biologics companies appear interested in the area, seemingly because of the proximity of biotechnology and large pharmaceutical companies.
Working as a team, the KIZ groups want to deliver technology rapidly to the market, and some of the products will surely spread to new therapeutic areas. For example, Polacek sees her cooling device going beyond its use in menopause. "People with diabetes and multiple sclerosis also get heat surges. There may even be occupational uses such as in hardhats," she says. With teamwork and entrepreneurial advice, one never knows what insight might set off a blaze of new products.