Global Gateway Program

Leading innovation to bring about solutions - SPARK VT

July 3, 2015

With proposals ranging from low-cost ground-penetrating radar to a lung sealant derived from seaweed, six research teams from the University of Vermont (UVM) pitched their ideas to a panel of experts at the first university-wide SPARK-VT session, all hoping to receive a seed grant to help move their innovative work one step closer to the marketplace.

Launched in 2013 by the Department of Medicine, SPARK-VT aims to support researchers as they navigate the tricky terrain between developing an idea for a new device or therapy and making it a reality. Its premise hinges on feedback from outside of the university: A panel of 12 leaders from biotech, pharmaceutical, business, engineering, finance, and legal fields are invited to listen to presentations from top researchers. Panel members ask questions, challenge presenters on the details of their plans and ultimately offer suggestions for next steps. All participants get tips and suggestions, but the winners receive seed funding from the University's Office of the Vice President for Research.

This year, after two successful years at the College of Medicine, UVM's Provost and Office of the Vice-President for Research broadened the program's reach, resulting in 13 teams from a variety of UVM colleges submitting proposals. After a selection process, the six teams invited to present this year included faculty from the UVM College of Medicine, the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, and the College of Arts and Sciences.

On June 26, the panel gathered in Kalkin Hall at UVM's School of Business Administration to hear proposals:University of Vermont research scholars news

  • "Half of all Americans will suffer from headache this year," Professor of Neurological Sciences Robert Shapiro, M.D., Ph.D., told the SPARK-VT panel, and it’s often very difficult to determine a root cause quickly and easily, which in the case of intracranial pressure (ICP) could be deadly. Shapiro proposed a handheld, non-invasive, eye scanning device to address this gap, which in the hands of emergency physicians and general practitioners, could help make quick referrals when ICP is detected. SPARK-VT funds would be used to develop a prototype and start testing.
  • Professor of Biochemistry Christopher Francklyn, Ph.D., and Professor of Pharmacology Karen Lounsbury, Ph.D., presented their research on the potential use of threonyl-tRNA synthetase as a biomarker for aggressive cancer. "There’s a desperate need for biomarkers," said Lounsbury, particularly for ovarian cancer and other types that are notoriously difficult to detect early. SPARK-VT funds would help the team develop a kit and start on the path to testing it.
  • Jon Ramsey, Ph.D., a research associate in the Department of Biochemistry, along with Professor of Medicine Claire Verschraegen, M.D., and Professor Emeritus of Chemistry William Geiger, Ph.D., presented a new family of compounds called cymanquines that disrupt autophagy, a process cancer cells use to develop drug resistance. SPARK-VT funds, Ramsey said, would be used to test a cymanquine compound in animal models of metastatic melanoma, as well as in other cancers.
  • Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dryver Huston, Ph.D., presented two proposals: One focused on a new, low-cost ground penetrating radar (GPR) technology for highway infrastructure maintenance testing that promises deep cost savings compared to systems currently available. SPARK-VT funds would help him to move the current prototype forward and identity a "scalable, low-cost manufacturing pathway" for a lightweight, vehicle-mounted system.
  • Huston's second project, presented on behalf of UVM Assistant Professors Ting Tan, Ph.D. and Patrick Lee, Ph.D., focused on the development of environment responsive microfibers to reinforce concrete structures. The market for concrete admixtures like this is estimated to be over $700 million, said Huston, with a 2.5 percent growth rate.
  • Professor of Medicine Daniel Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., in collaboration with Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Rachael Oldinski, Ph.D., presented an easy-to-use, non-toxic, lung sealant "patch," the "LungBandAid," that could be used for lung surgeries or other emergency sealant needs. 

SPARK-VT will be announcing winners of 2015 seed grant funding this summer. Past SPARK-VT awardees have partnered with the UVM Office of Technology Commercialization to found companies and develop partnerships with established biotech firms, as well as successfully apply for a number of competitive grants. Based on a program at Stanford University and brought to the College of Medicine by Department of Medicine Chair Polly Parsons, M.D., SPARK-VT now also includes workshops and guest lectures that address the commercialization process, founding start-ups, business planning and other topics that help faculty move research from bench to bedside.

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