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January 10, 2019

Awards help faculty commercialize inventions

Proof of concept grants advance new technologies to fight cancer and improve agriculture

Author: Holly Ober
January 10, 2019

The Office of Research and Economic Development at UC Riverside has awarded three faculty research projects proof of concept grants to help them move new technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace. 

This year, the office received 11 applications and selected six for final review. 

“We look for projects that promise to solve one or more urgent problems. We help those researchers with a little seed funding to move their work closer to commercialization,” explained Mark Leibowitz, interim director of UCR’s Entrepreneurial Proof of Concept and Innovation Center, or EPIC.

An entrepreneur-in-residence at EPIC was assigned to each of the six finalists to support the generation of a final business-focused presentation. The finalists presented their proposals to a review panel of external experts and businesspeople. 

Based upon the ratings and comments of that panel, three projects were selected for funding:

Masaru Rao, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, received $35,000 to develop a device capable of inserting genes into immune cells that allow them to better recognize and target solid tumor cells. Current techniques rely on viral transduction and can only supply enough cells to treat people with certain types of blood cancer, such as leukemia and lymphoma. Rao’s project seeks to develop a more scalable technology that will eventually enable extension of these therapies to the far larger population of patients with solid tumors.

Adler Dillman, an assistant professor of nematology, received $30,000 to identify the proteins some nematodes secrete when they infect an insect and kill it. Dillman plans to use the toxin in a pesticide, or genetically modify crops to produce the protein and become naturally insect-resistant. Most corn and cotton in the U.S., for example, has been genetically modified to produce a protein called BT toxin, originally found in a type of bacteria. But insects are starting to resist BT toxin, and the nematode-derived toxin could serve as a supplement or alternative.

Paul Larsen, a professor of biochemistry, received $35,000 to modify corn to resist aluminum. A single alteration to a protein that regulates carbon fixation sets off a chain reaction in the plant’s metabolism that makes it able to withstand aluminum in the soil and possibly increase photosynthesis, produce more usable amino acids, and put more carbon in the soil. Crops modified this way could be larger, more nutritious, and have bigger harvests where aluminum is a problem. Increased carbon sequestration could even make a dent in global warming.

Each year, the Office of Research and Economic Development issues a call for proposals for Proof of Concept Grants. The office has awarded over $450,000 in grants over the past two years in an effort to support faculty in bringing their innovations closer to commercialization.  For more information on the Proof of Concept Grants and the next deadline for applications, visit www.techpartnerships.ucr.edu.

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