Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, Colorado, is a nexus for energy research and technology development. CSU Ventures is the university’s resource hub for faculty and students as well as for entrepreneurs and investors interested in the ideas that become today’s innovations in technology. Through CSU Ventures’ technology transfer services, companies with research projects are connected to individuals with the knowledge and expertise to advance those projects into profitable enterprises. This gives CSU researchers additional opportunities for applying their work in relevant industry endeavors, making an impact beyond academia.
“I want entrepreneurs and business owners to know that we’re open, accessible and interested in working with them at CSU Ventures,” said Jeremy Nelson, director of licensing and business development at CSU Ventures. He is also a registered patent agent and is responsible for license negotiation, patent prosecution and technology marketing for intellectual property created at CSU. “The faculty here are active participants in the process. They’re very interested in working on real-world problems and seeing them through. They don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and driving ventures forward.”
As the bridge between academic research and the outside world of startups and commercialization, CSU Ventures acts as a mediator between faculty and student researchers and companies. Nelson also oversees the technology transfer of clean energy and clean technology innovations as they are implemented into startups or businesses.
CSU Ventures was awarded $40,000 in grant money from Colorado Cleantech Industries Association, funding that is, in Nelson’s words, “always hard to come by but is a really excellent opportunity.” This sum, unlike other grants, was not intended strictly for lab research but for a broad array of applicable projects. The CCIA designed this unorthodox proof-of-concept funding (POC) for CSU so that the university could get creative and use the money for market research, prototype builds and patent apps in addition to the more standard technical research. The money went toward a handful of different projects, including OptiEnz Sensors, Carbo Analytics, and work done by Professors Sybil Sharvelle and Kevin Lear.
OptiEnz Sensors has developed a novel analytical system for continuous measurements of organic chemical concentrations in water and aqueous solution. Using the CCIA grant, the company engaged with NEON Global Research to perform primary market research to determine the relative size of the market for food and beverage, fermentation and groundwater monitoring. While the company can address a wide range of markets with its sensor technology, it is essential that it has a market focus in order to maximize its marketing and sales efforts.
CSU-originated startup Carbo Analytics’ POC project transformed a single research and development, proof-of-principle prototype into two commercially viable, roadshow-ready pilot units. CCIA funds matched Carbo Analytics’ funds and supported the electrical and hardware components comprising both units. The units have been pivotal in opening partnership doors and showcasing the company’s technical capabilities. Since their creation, Carbo Analytics has signed three major collaborative agreements with industrial partners including a sponsored development project with one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies.
POC money received by Prof. Sybil Sharvelle was utilized to complete construction of a semi-truck trailer mobile demonstration unit for the development of multi-stage anaerobic digestion technology capable of processing high solids waste material. With funds received for this project, the mobile power service for the trailer was updated, bringing the electrical service up to local code ensuring greater safety for operators. This unit can now be transported to different facilities for technology demonstrations. The unit’s mobility allows the developers to test multiple feed-stocks with varying quality and collection methods. Such demonstration is required for Prof. Sharvelle and her team to move to the next phase of commercialization.
Dr. Kevin Lear, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, developed and patented an optical microchip-based sensor that detects target chemicals in a small, portable form factor. Originally developed for sensing of proteins, DNA, and other biological materials, the POC money allowed Prof. Lear to investigate the sensor’s application to environmental sensing of contaminants relevant to the energy industry. Half of the funds went towards technical research that demonstrated the sensor could be adapted to detect parts-per-billion levels of benzene in water. The remainder of the funds were used to file a patent application on the environmental sensor and to engage with people in the industry to determine its commercial potential. Lear has formed a company to pursue this project commercially, an endeavor that would not have been possible without initial funding from CCIA.
“What was great about this POC money was that it had very few strings attached to it, so at our discretion we could put small amounts of money where we thought it would have the most impact,” Nelson said about the funding. “We were able to use the POC money to oil the machine, make things happen and keep things going.”
One POC grant recipient said, “CCIA funds were critical to proof-of-concept explorations that will pilot the near future of a new Colorado company.”
“CSU is a land-grant university, and we take that pretty seriously. As a land-grant institution, we weren’t formed as an ivory tower to collect knowledge and then not share it. We want to establish centers of learning and assess best practices to pass on,” Nelson said. “We’ve been successful mostly because of the community and the network of support around the university.”