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Creating a new startup amid a global pandemic presents an entirely new set of challenges. While undertaking the standard responsibilities that come with filing for patents and creating startups, many faculty and researchers from the University of Michigan turned to U-M Innovation Partnerships, formerly known as the Office of Technology Transfer, for guidance.

The University reported a record number of patents during the 2021 fiscal year, with U-M Innovation Partnerships receiving over 502 invention proposals, 169 of which became official U.S. patents

Speaking about the faculty and their research aspirations, Kelly Sexton, associate vice president for research and innovation partnerships, said that U-M Innovation Partnerships works to help researchers connect their work to the private sector by commercializing their research.

“We’re really excited about being supportive of faculty, being seen as their partners on their innovation journey,” Sexton said. “They’re really our partners and we are here to give them whatever they may need. Sometimes, (if no pre-existing company can help the faculty) we help them bring new technology out of a research laboratory and then to commercial use by creating a new company.” 

Innovation Partnerships supported the launch of 23 new startup companies during the past fiscal year. The startups in the U-M Innovation Partnerships portfolio range between topics of life science, copyright and physical science and software. The projects all stem from faculty working on core subjects such as energy renewal, cell analysis and interactive technology.

Among these, two companies have found success in recent years, both of which began their collaboration with the partnership in 2020. 

Blue Conduit, a water infrastructure analytics consulting company that uses data-driven technology to inventory and locate lead service lines, was founded with the goal of monitoring lead service lines throughout the U.S. There are 6 to 10 million service lines that connect water mains to households, so managing them is a wide-scale project, according to President and COO Ian Robinson. 

“Drinking water flowing through service lines made of lead was the main source of contamination in Flint, in Newark and in several cities that have had murky water crises in recent years,” Robinson said. 

Two University professors and data scientists, Jacob Abernethy and Eric Schwartz, founded Blue Conduit. Abernethy and Schwartz were working with different U-M student groups to help communicate water quality information to Flint residents in 2015, during the peak of the water crisis.

With their background in data science, Robinson said Abernethy and Schwartz saw this crisis as both an infrastructure issue as it was a data issue. 

“Using fundamental statistical processes and machine learning to help the city reconcile uncertainty, they could help prioritize the replacement efforts so that those with a greater likelihood of having lead in service lines would be the first to get replacements and then go on to the next home,” Robinson said. “Blue Conduit’s data-driven technology helps to identify lead service lines and provide them the confidence that they can address this issue efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Blue Conduit’s technology was even highlighted by TIME as one of the best inventions of 2021 in the sustainability category.

Robinson commended U-M Innovation Partnerships, which benefited the company’s work and impact, now expanded to 50 cities.  

“(They were) an amazing partner in helping grow Blue Conduit from a specific project into a real scalable solution,” Robinson said. “Our work is about maximizing our impact as well as helping our community overcome challenging questions about data, and more broadly public health. Innovation Partnerships has helped the impact of our work go beyond the city, and across the country.” 

LynxDx, the second successful company, is a biotechnology startup that uses prostate cancer diagnostic assays to determine cancer gene levels in urine. Given the vast spread of COVID-19, the business decided to shift their company to support local testing due to the lack of testing centers in Michigan.

UM-Innovation Partnerships helped LynxDx commercialize their work and aid them during their transition into a COVID-19 testing center after seeing the company’s commitment to benefiting Ann Arbor residents’ health. 

The company was originally founded to screen for prostate cancer. The primary tool used by LynxDx in their screening efforts is MyProstateScore (MPS), which uses traditional prostate-screening results along with the levels of two cancer genes found in urine to create a more comprehensive review of a person’s risk for prostate cancer.

As U-M Innovation Partnerships prepares to take on more faculty research and potential startups, they have added a new service, specifically to find new ways to partner with companies and better connect them with the private sector. 

“This is our Corporate Research Alliance group,” Sexton said. “This is a new team that we just started back in September to help faculty go from a relationship with a company to help them convert that to an actual successful sponsored research engagement.”

Daily News Contributor Sejal Patil can be reached at sejpatil@umich.edu.