The Grounds are rich soil for innovation, made richer by a seed fund that helps University- affiliated ideas grow until they are successful enough to attract other funding.
The UVA Licensing & Ventures Group Seed Fund, begun in 2016 with $10 million from the UVA Health System and unrestricted private funds, provides more than money, though. It also has the potential to connect people with ideas to a vast network of alumni talent—people who could advise and invest, open doors, lend industry expertise, and serve as board members.
“The UVA network is phenomenal,” says the fund’s managing director, Bob Creeden. “We hope to leverage [its] experience, knowledge and networks to help us bring UVA innovations toward the marketplace.”
TearSolutions Inc. is one of the fund’s early recipients. The startup was co-founded by Gordon Laurie, UVA professor of cell biology and ophthalmology, and Mark Logan, former COO of Bausch + Lomb, and the former chairman, CEO and president of VISX, which introduced the technology for LASIK surgery.
Laurie studies the problem of dry eye, which affects 7 percent of the world’s population and up to 30 percent of the elderly. Laurie developed Lacripep, a commercial form of the protein lacritin, which restores health to the surface of the eye.
The LVG Seed Fund invested $350,000 last year to help move it from mouse models to testing on humans. If all goes well in the current Phase 2 trial, Laurie and Logan expect to trigger a transaction with a major pharmaceutical company.
“Bob got deeply involved right away with the science we were doing,” Laurie says. “He provides a fantastic education on what elements you need to start up a company.”
The fund works like any venture firm, except that the five board members are high-powered UVA alumni working in venture capital, and much of the early vetting is done by Darden School of Business students in Creeden’s Due Diligence in Seed Funds course, providing a real-life learning opportunity. In January Carleen Bowers (Col ’07) joined the fund to assist Creeden with managing the growing portfolio.
“The goal is to accelerate UVA-developed technologies,” Creeden says. “At the time we invest, the financing for many of these companies is often too small or too risky for traditional venture capital, so we’re trying to be the catalyst by saying that we, the University, are committing to this. We’re putting skin in the game, showing faith and confidence in the technology and the people, and we can attract outside funds because of that.”
The fund’s first investment was in TypeZero, a digital and personalized medicine company that helps patients manage diabetes. But the fund’s interest isn’t only in medicine. Last September it invested in Mission Secure, which fights cyber attacks within software systems in the oil and gas, power, transportation, and defense industries.
“It’s pretty amazing to see what researchers are developing and thinking about,” Creeden says. “It’s exciting to see how the ideas grow, and we welcome the opportunity to engage with alumni who want to be involved.”