A French innovator is helping California wine growers. He’s not showing them the finer points of aging a good cabernet, but rather how to seal the raw ends of their pruned branches.
Philippe Rolshausen, a plant researcher at UC Riverside, developed CropSeal, a combination of beeswax and oil, as an organic way of keeping fungus from taking hold of grapevines when they are cut back following harvest. He’s now marketing the product to the industry
Rolshausen is one of a number of UCR scientists creating products with market potential. These days, the university is making a bigger effort to capitalize on such opportunities.
Chancellor Kim Wilcox and Michael Pazzani, the vice chancellor for research, have visions of small — and perhaps not-so-small — businesses being spun off of discoveries made by the university’s scientists. They believe the school can spark tech industry growth in the region and have dreams of a Silicon Valley type magnet, albeit on a smaller scale.
To help make that happen, Pazzani said his office is providing education and mentoring support in entrepreneurship and is establishing incubators, wet lab space and start-up accelerators, both on campus and in the community, even as far away as Temecula, where Rolshausen’s business is located.
Such efforts are nothing new. UCR, like most universities, has had an office that handles technology transfer for years. Those operations help researchers establish patents — from which the university can sometimes glean royalties of anywhere from 1 percent to 7 percent — and usually provide advice on keeping business ventures separate from their duties with the university.
But Pazzani said the office is doing more than in the past.
“We help faculty and students form companies whether or not we have a stake in their patent,” Pazzani said.
The office also has gotten a boost from the UC Office of the President. An initiative last year by President Janet Napolitano provided each UC campus with $2.2 million to spend on start-up programs.
“We’re putting $1 million into the wet lab incubator,” said Pazzani.
Riverside is short of wet lab space for small businesses. Wet labs are where chemical and biological experiments are carried out, as opposed to dry labs, which are largely computer equipment. The campus’ new multidisciplinary research building will have wet lab space that can be utilized by such entrepreneurs.
The remainder of the grant money will be used help researchers develop prototypes to show proof of their concepts.
The office also recently established the $10 million Highlander Venture Fund, which will provide grants of between $100,000 and $500,000 for start-up companies. The fund is a partnership with Vertical Venture Partners, a Silicon Valley venture fund. It is designed to speed the creation of new companies, and eventually, more jobs. Researchers from any college, and even alumni, can apply for the grants.
In addition, Pazzani said, the office is working on providing a roadmap for researchers with potential products.
“We have implemented a 10-week program designed to teach entrepreneurship and innovation,” he said, which is open not only to faculty but to students as well. “I’d actually like to see more student involvement. Until this year, we haven’t really assisted the students.”
That same openness is also true of ExCITE, the business incubator created by UCR two years ago. Recently Taj Ahmad Eldridge took over as director of the program. The start-up accelerator, Eldridge said, is designed to help new tech companies find work space, funding and the connections needed to ramp their businesses up quickly. It is open to any business affiliated with UCR, or located in or planning to locate in Riverside.
Eldridge says he sees the same kind of potential in Riverside that Boulder, Colo., has been able to tap into, creating a small tech industry there. In fact, a promising UCR spin-off, called SendGrid, ended up in Boulder because the business, which started in 2009, couldn’t find what it needed in Riverside.
“Once we collaborate and coordinate, things like SendGrid will not happen again,” Eldridge said.
That will happen, Eldridge said, with coordination between UCR, the City of Riverside and Riverside County.
“We’re the only accelerator in the nation that has a partnership with the (local) university the city and the county,” he said. “That allows us to communicate and collaborate on what makes a great foundation for a start-up.”
Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey said the economic climate is right for such an effort. Last year, collaboration between the city, county and UCR resulted in the California Air Resources Board choosing Riverside as the site for relocating its research facility. Bailey would like to see the same effort applied to the ExCITE incubator.
“We have the talent in our city,” Bailey said. “We need to keep that talent here and grow employment in the tech sector. It typically starts with one. If one of these startups hits it big and grows into a publicly offered traded stock, there’s a mark of success.”
That one success will draw other companies, he said. But such businesses have to be encouraged.
“If we don’t have the incubator, they’re going to go somewhere else for sure.”
Eldridge said the region lends itself to certain types of tech businesses, particularly those geared toward agriculture, green energy and water issues. Currently, there are a dozen businesses involved with ExCITE, he said.
One of those, Sutro, is actually based in San Francisco. Ravi Kurani, the CEO, is a UCR graduate. He plans to establish a “presence” in Riverside for his product that uses smartphone technology to alert pool owners when a dose of chlorine or other chemicals is necessary and when it is time to order more chemicals.
Though his company is currently geared for backyard pools, Kurani — who says he grew up in his parent’s pool supply business in Riverside — believes the technology has wider applications. He plans to develop versions that can monitor drinking water quality as well as address the needs of agriculture and fisheries.
“Riverside is a prime location for that,” Kurani said. “The spark was born at UCR. We’re already starting to do some research with some PhDs down there.”
Sutro has benefited from tech transfer programs at both UC Berkeley and UCR, he said. Without them, his company would not be poised to expand.
“Sutro wouldn’t exist the way that it does today,” he said. “It think (the growth) would be a lot slower.”
Another recent beneficiary of the tech transfer process is a company called Zybooks, which creates digital interactive textbooks. Frank Vahid, a professor of computer science and engineering, developed the product. Since unveiling its first book in 2013, the company has generated more than 20 more, all geared toward science, technology, engineering and math.
Vahid said Pazzani’s office was critical in helping the company get off the ground.
“I don’t’ know if the company would exist (otherwise) to be honest,” he said. “They gave us our first office space it was part of the ExCITE program. It was a great office. It made us feel like a company.
“They had a number of meetings to help us network,” he added. “They were very supportive on educating us in doing (Small Business Innovative Research) grants.”
Obtaining two grants through SBIR, helped get the company up and running, he said.
While Zybooks is experiencing some success, there is little or no local impact. The company, which employs about 50 people, is located in Los Gatos, where Vahid’s business partner, Smita Bakshi, lives. Vahid said he has no plans to relocate.
“I absolutely love being a professor,” he said. “I really enjoy working with the students. I feel the university is making a big difference in a lot of students’ lives.”
Rolshausen also attributed the existence of his start-up company to Pazzani.
“In the last year, he has developed this team,” Rolshausen said. “Mostly, it involves coaching. They work with us to develop the UC agreement.”
Even with that, he said, there have been hurdles.
“There’s been several occasions when I thought it was going to be the end of the road,” Rolshausen said of his business. “For us to get the UC agreement, we needed to get insurance for the company. The cost was so outrageous, we couldn’t put the money on the table.”
It was his business partner, Gabriel Paulino, 35, of Long Beach, who came up with a solution by making contact with some people he knew in the industry. Paulino said UCR’s program has been helpful, but it has also been hit and miss.
While some might think Temecula — with its local wine industry — would be an ideal place for a product used to treat grapevines, the fungus CropSeal is designed to stop doesn’t exist there. So far, the product has only been marketed to growers in Napa Valley. Paulino said the Temecula incubator space is inconvenient for both him (he’s based in Long Beach) and Rolshausen.
“We need a space in Riverside,” he said. “We can’t keep going to Temecula. We want to be part of an incubator in Riverside, on campus.”
At one point in the licensing process, Paulino said, the mentor UCR had provided them disappeared. But Pazzani’s office replaced that person with another mentor who Paulino said was “very helpful.”
“It hasn’t been the best experience,” he said, “but it’s a process, like any relationship.”
Pazzani said his office is working to smooth out the road.
“We’re trying to hook people up with the right collaborators,” he said. “That’s one of the bigger challenges.”
With the right support, he expects to see more and larger companies coming out of the university.
“Our largest startup, Zybooks, has 20 employees,” he said. “I see no reason we couldn’t produce a company that would hire 1,000 people. We need the next Esri or Bournes.”