Darden Incubator to Assist in Translational Research

By Melissa Maki

The University of Virginia’s Batten Institute has long been an active supporter of entrepreneurial activities.  Each year, a handful of promising new business ventures are selected for Darden’s Incubator program.  Entry into the program is through Business Concept and Business Plan competitions that are open to anyone in the U.Va. community but the Incubator program puts Darden MBA students in key leadership positions to provide them with critical experiential education. 

Philippe Sommer, director of the Incubator program, explains that the Incubator gives students and their teams financial support as well as expert advice in order to give life to their novel business ideas.  There are typically a wide range of companies in the Incubator.  Currently, the breadth of the program includes a kids’ travel website and a nutritional product company. 

The traditional mission of the Incubator has been to get companies off the ground.  In the last year, an exciting new multidisciplinary collaboration has begun between Darden and the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME).  BME was one of nine departments nationally to receive a $2.9 million Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Translational Research Partnership Award.  The goal of the award is to bring lifesaving technologies to market quickly.  The funding will provide resources for biomedical and clinical research and will facilitate cooperation between the Health System, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Patent Foundation and Darden to work towards this end.

“Thanks to the Coulter Foundation’s generosity, we will be able to create a new culture that accelerates biomedical technology transfer and commercialization,” asserts Thomas C. Skalak, professor and chairman of the BME.  The award will allow for the development and testing of prototypes by faculty and other outside experts all within the University setting.  “Through this approach, which we call ‘concurrent engineering,’ good ideas receive attention earlier,” explains Skalak. “Health care technologies carefully nurtured in university laboratories have the potential to reach the marketplace, where they can help patients much more quickly.” 

According to Sommer, who also sits on an Advisory Board for the Coulter grant, this process involves proactively “Thinking about that end product and end user.”  Sommer describes this as “An iterative process, where the scientists consider the end user as they do their research.”  Darden students will be involved in helping companies to proactively understand what the market opportunities are for their products through summer internships and class projects. 

“Traditionally, it’s been more of a linear process- scientists conducted pure research- science for science’s sake.” says Sommer “while at the other end of the spectrum companies have only been product driven.”  Engineers naturally solve real world problems, so BME is the natural interface between SEAS, SOM, Darden, and Virginia Gateway to accelerate the movement of basic science into products.  Sommer intends to use the Incubator and Darden student internships to help build these bridges, while assisting the Department of BME in its enhanced mission to bring new discoveries to bear more quickly on patient care.

Current Incubator Companies

  • OpSmart -Pre surgical nutritional products.
  • Language Works -Educational software for vocabulary acquisition.
  • Kid-A-GoGo -Products/website for traveling with kids.
  • Hemosonics -Medical diagnostics.
  • Think Tank Industries -Computer disk drive protection from fire/flood.
  • Trans Borders -Japanese service to house foreign students in Japanese Universities.
  • VIKAZA -Cell phone based, location specific, information.
  • Foothills -Unique foot stool with handles for children/elderly.
  • Control Alt Design -Web design firm.
  • Power Control Systems -Power management in a small business or home.
  • Pocket Med -Patient data capture in a Palm device.
  • Career Next Steps -Career self assessment tool on-line.