Coulter Foundation Award Creates a $20 Million U.Va. Endowment for Translational Research in Biomedical Innovation

May 3, 2011 — The University of Virginia and the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation have teamed to create a $20 million endowment to foster research collaboration between biomedical engineers and clinicians, with the goal of developing new technologies to improve patient care and human health.

The U.Va. Coulter Translational Research Partnership in biomedical engineering is being funded by a $10 million grant from the Coulter Foundation and $10 million from other University endowments.

Translational research moves new ideas and discoveries from university laboratories to new products and services that directly impact human health, often by creating small companies or by partnering with established businesses. Biomedical technologies are among the nation's most important innovation-based economic drivers, creating small businesses and high-value jobs.

"We are very grateful to the Coulter Foundation for making possible the creation of this new endowment," U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said. "The goal of translating promising biomedical research into practical applications for health care aligns with the University's long-standing tradition of applying useful knowledge to the betterment of society. We look forward to continuing this work, with the Coulter Foundation as our partner."

"This program started out as a grand experiment to link the relatively new discipline of biomedical engineering to translational research," Sue Van, president of the Coulter Foundation, said. "We are extremely proud of the advancements achieved by the University of Virginia in moving projects through the Coulter Process so that these advances will benefit patients." 

Elias Caro, vice president of technology development at the foundation, said, "As a member of the Coulter program, U.Va. adopted the Coulter Process, a rigorous, industry-like development process that includes a thorough commercialization analysis which assesses intellectual property, FDA requirements, reimbursement, critical milestones and clinical adoption. This attracted follow-on funding from venture capital and biomedical companies and created high-quality jobs."

In 2005, the Coulter Foundation chose U.Va. as one of nine universities to each receive $5 million grants over a five-year period to accelerate the movement of biomedical engineering projects into commercial products and clinical practices. The invested funds have produced a 7-to-1 ratio in follow-on funding.

Thomas C. Skalak, the Coulter program leader since its inception at U.Va. – originally as chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and for the last three years as vice president for research – said, "We have been inspired by the Coulter Foundation's people and approaches. It has been very gratifying to see science serving humanity so directly.

"Collaboration among the diverse talents within the University is a powerful way to create new innovation. This Coulter Foundation partnership can be a role model for other collaborations that produce solutions to the complex challenges facing our society today. With the success of the Coulter program, U.Va. is now known as a global destination for biomedical innovation. New ideas change the world."

In addition to mobilizing resources in biomedical engineering and clinical research, the Coulter endowment will allow U.Va. to continue to integrate its Health System, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Darden School of Business, College of Arts & Sciences, School of Nursing and Patent Foundation to more quickly bring life-saving technologies to the marketplace. "Together, these schools and programs are supporting promising faculty research projects, nurturing collaborations between clinicians, scientists, students and biomedical engineers, and transforming the way research findings move from the lab to the clinic and marketplace," Skalak said.

David Chen, U.Va.'s Coulter program director, said, "The Coulter program has transformed the research capabilities of the University into a high-powered innovation engine that will deliver valuable technologies to society. It is incredibly inspiring to see undergraduates working side-by-side with world-class researchers to tackle the toughest issues in health."

The U.Va. team leaders are Skalak, who chairs the board; Chen; Michael Lawrence, the interim chair of Biomedical Engineering; and Sharon Krueger, who helped build the Coulter program as assistant program director and now serves more broadly as U.Va. innovation partnership coordinator.

Key to the success of the Coulter-U.Va. partnership is an advisory board comprising faculty scientists and clinicians, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and industry leaders  who counsel project teams on how to bring ideas to fruition. Kathy Carr, an external member of the advisory board and founding director of Tall Oaks Capital, confirms the importance of pairing industry, investment and technical experts with University faculty.

"Venture capitalists and angel investors constantly look for ways to de-risk their investments," she said. "The U.Va. Coulter Translational Research Program provides a strong screening mechanism to identify worthy science and technology with an eye toward product development. Through a competitive, milestone-based review process, grant applications are scrutinized by seasoned scientists as well as industry and investment veterans. Recipients of the competitive Coulter grants work with industry and technical experts to prove value associated with market-based milestone development."

Having demonstrated the success of the U.Va.-Coulter model, the University is seeking to raise an additional $10 million from other foundation, corporate and individual partners to provide permanent annual funding for 10 to 12 projects per year at $100,000-$150,000 each. 

More than 30 U.Va. projects have been funded since 2006, focusing on such areas as cardiovascular disease, cancer, wound repair, orthopedic surgery, medical imaging and diabetes. U.Va.'s Coulter projects have produced five startup companies, 11 licensing agreements, more than $12 million in venture capital and private investments, and more than $20 million in federal, state or foundation grants.

Mark Crowell, U.Va.'s executive director of innovation partnerships and commercialization, said, "The Coulter program at U.Va. is an exemplar of how universities can be transformative engines for the economic prosperity of their regions and the nation. This successful program offers a scalable template for the entire U.S. to compete in today's global economy by producing high-value innovation at the nation's research universities."

The start-up companies have the potential to grow into thriving businesses, thereby providing an economic return to the commonwealth of Virginia. For example, HemoSonics, a start-up company led by U.Va. biomedical engineer Bill Walker, has built a new device to quantify an individual patient's balance between bleeding and clotting. This instrument will guide doctors to provide specific blood products and drugs to stop bleeding or manage excessive clotting. In surgery and trauma, this specific guidance will preserve scarce blood products, reduce the cost of health care and improve patient outcomes.

In another example, Edward Botchwey, professor of biomedical engineering and orthopedic surgery, and Trey Cui, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery, are using a Coulter program grant to conduct further research in tissue engineering, focusing on promoting the integration of bone implants after skeletal reconstruction surgery.

They are developing novel coatings to deliver drugs to enhance the ability of bone tissue to accept and integrate bone implants. Botchwey, named by President Obama as  recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, said the Coulter program grant has spawned a vibrant partnership with LifeNet Health, an organ donation and tissue banking service.

"This grant is a transformative opportunity," Botchwey said. "We now have a mechanism to transfer the best of the basic science research we do from our labs to directly and positively affect the lives of real people."

For information on the U.Va. Coulter program, click here.

Wallace H. Coulter (1913-1998), benefactor of the foundation, was a serial innovator and entrepreneur. He founded Coulter Corporation and continued to lead this global diagnostics company during its entire 40-year history. He revolutionized the practice of hematology and laboratory medicine and pioneered the fields of flow cytometry and monoclonal antibodies.

The Coulter Principle, or electronic sensing zone, was the first of his 82 patents. Its first application, the Coulter Counter, provided the first high-throughput, standardized method to count and size cells and particles as they flow through an aperture. It led to major breakthroughs in science, medicine and industry. In fact, the Coulter Principle touches everyone's daily life from having a blood test, to painting your home, from drinking beer to eating chocolate, swallowing a pill or applying cosmetics. It is critical to toners and ceramics as well as space exploration, where NASA uses it to test the purity of rocket fuel. The impact of the Coulter Principle to the medical, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, food, beverage and consumer industries is immeasurable.

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