Water recycling toilets, cancer treatments inspired by marine sponges, and a new way to measure the charge left in your cell phone batteries were among the innovative ideas featured at this week’s UH Tech Showcase downtown.

These showcase events are designed to connect the diverse university community with the broader business community, and hopefully to spark connections between sometimes esoteric, academic ideas and the next big business breakthrough.

“We’re really trying to give industry people a chance to see what’s going on at UH,” said Song K. Choi, professor and assistant dean at the University of Hawaii College of Engineering. “Not just in science or engineering or math, but throughout the university system — community colleges and UH Hilo included.”

The MorphOptics team, from left, Dr. Joe Ritter, Dr. Jeff Kuhn, and Ian Cunnyngham, stand behind a mirror fabricated using the high-quality/low-cost shaping process that they developed at UH’s Institute for Astronomy, and that they are now trying to turn into a business at XLR8UH.

The MorphOptics team, from left, Joe Ritter, Jeff Kuhn, and Ian Cunnyngham stand behind a mirror fabricated using a process they developed at UH’s Institute for Astronomy, and that they are now trying to turn into a business at XLR8UH.

Courtesy of XLR8UH

Commercializing university research has been hailed as a path to community economic development, diversification, and sustainability for decades. At UH, this has long been the purview of the Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development. But for the last year and a half, that office has had a new partner in its mission: XLR8UH.

XLR8UH is one of several Hawaii-based venture accelerators, organizations that help selected startup companies launch and grow their businesses. But it is aimed at members of the UH community, from faculty and staff to students and alumni. It’s a unique partnership between UH and local investment firm Sultan Ventures, which also focuses on early-stage startups.

Applications for XLR8UH’s next cohort of companies have poured in, according to XLR8UH Managing Director Tarik Sultan. The deadline was last weekend, and the team is now reviewing them for the most promising UH-affiliated entrepreneurs.

Measuring Success

With summer cohort number four poised to kick off next month, Sultan said he is very happy with the program’s progress.

“We are incredibly impressed with the innovations out of UH,” he said. “Our gut feeling is that we’re just getting started, and the best is yet to come.”

Jacob Issac-Lowry, founder of Flywire, listens to advice and feedback on his startup’s strategy during an XLR8UH workshop.

Jacob Isaac-Lowry, founder of FlyWire, listens to advice and feedback on his startup’s strategy during an XLR8UH workshop.

Jason Rushin

In just a year and a half, according to Sultan, 15 startups have gone through the program, collectively generating dozens of jobs, hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, and millions of dollars in funding. These numbers are notable considering that XLR8UH companies often come in with little more than a big idea.

“XLR8UH deals with very early stage ventures, so it is much too early to be looking at traditional exit metrics” or acquisitions, he explained. Instead, measures of success include paying customers, acquiring follow-on funding from other investors, and increasing overall startup activity in the community, “which we definitely have.”

The program also tracks participation from the neighbor islands and the representation of women and minorities, groups that are underrepresented in the venture capital scene.

Capitalizing on Higher Education

The key strength of XLR8UH, Sultan said, is the link to UH.

“As you know, communities with strong research universities spur innovation, and we are fortunate that the University of Hawaii continues to attract considerable research funding and top-level researchers,” he said. “In fact, UH is one of the nation’s top research institutions, bringing in about $500 million a year in research dollars…  and looking to double that to $1 billion.”

And while commercializing university research is an old idea, public-private approaches like XLR8UH only now are beginning to take shape across the country.

Dr. Milton Garces, Ph.D, founder of Red Vox, tinkers with the infrasound equipment that he and his team hope to commercialize with help from XLR8UH.

Milton Garces, Ph.D, founder of RedVox, tinkers with the infrasound equipment that he and his team hope to commercialize with help from XLR8UH.

Courtesy of XLR8UH

“There is a growing interest in university-focused accelerator programs nationwide, with XLR8UH as one of the first in the nation,” Sultan said. “UH is actually trailblazing how innovation is commercialized at universities.”

In February, XLR8UH received a $500,000 federal grant from the Economic Development Administration to continue its work, which was doubled to $1 million through matching funds from UH. And the program was named one of the nation’s most elite accelerators by the U.S. Small Business Association last August, recognition that also came with $50,000 in cash.

Beyond the funds, those awards more importantly have raised awareness of the innovation coming out of UH and Hawaii, Sultan said.

“As the largest research enterprise in the state and growing, we envision that the UH-focused pipeline can only continue to grow,” he added. “As students, faculty and alumni learn more about XLR8UH, we’re going to see some amazing ideas, companies and teams apply, and from that, the commercialization of amazing innovations.”

The State of Innovation

Commercialization can be tricky when it involves a public university and public funds. Large institutions have a lot of inertia, and big changes require government involvement. The challenges were apparent to at least one of XLR8UH’s first cohort members.

Innovation Update

“UH is a conservative, still state-emulating bureaucracy, so doing something new like this has been slow,” said Jeff Kuhn, CEO of MorphOptics, whose company is taking advances made with telescopes at the UH Institute for Astronomy to the solar energy market. “Yet I now believe that overcoming the pain to get to a working public-private ecology is essential for UH.”

Coming from a science background, Kuhn said he was especially impressed with what XLR8UH brought to the table from the venture capital and business development side.

“As a big federal grant recipient, it’s been a revelation for me to peer into this other world where technology grows differently,” he said. “This is a transcendent value of XLR8UH, a window for academics into a very different world.”

Now that those two worlds have collided, Kuhn said, they need to work together.

“A future for research in academia here may very well depend on UH succeeding in this new arena,” he said.

For the university’s part, Sultan said there is a system-wide effort under UH President David Lassner and Vice President for Research and Innovation Vassilis Syrmos to promote entrepreneurship. But government support is key, and a recent bill that would have streamlined the commercialization process at UH failed to go anywhere.

“The process has certainly improved, but it needs to be even better,” he said. “Other states have actually, since our inception, started refining their processes.”

Sultan said he hopes more support will come from across the state.

“Entrepreneurship is the future of education, and it’s critical that all stakeholders understand and appreciate its importance,” he said. “An entrepreneurially focused educational foundation improves the long-term value of both our community and our investments.”

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