Six professors granted USC’s first award for faculty intending to commercialize their research

USC Research and Innovation developed the award this year.

Funding from the award will support faculty seeking federal research grants to commercialize their research and apply it to the real world. (Gina Nguyen / Daily Trojan)

USC revealed the first six professors to receive the Small Business Innovation Research / Small Business Technology Transfer Planning Award. The award provides funding to faculty who wish to commercialize their research, such as Denis Evseenko, a professor of orthopedic surgery. 

Evseenko’s research centers on developing a new class of drugs to better treat chronic inflammation, specifically in the knee and hip joints. The award will help fund his research, which has pharmaceutical implications for the treatment of humans and dogs.

“This grant will help us to generate some proof of concept … You need to have strong intellectual property because no one will invest into your technology if you don’t have strong [intellectual property] protection,” Evseenko said. “The small business grants are specifically designed to help to take [research] from a research lab into something that will survive in an aggressive real world space.”

Evseenko said the application process emphasized details on how the research could apply to the real world, which made receiving the award both gratifying and daunting.

 “Unlike many research programs that we submit to, [the SBIR / STTR Award] is mostly focused on outcomes … You need to present very clear milestones and success criteria,” Evseenko said. “Getting [the award] was exciting but it always places you in a position that you really need to deliver.”

Award recipients were Evseenko, Brian Applegate, a professor of otolaryngology; Mark Humayun, a professor of ophthalmology; Peter Kuhn, a professor of biological sciences; Michelle Povinelli, a professor of electrical engineering; and Peter Wang, a professor and department chair of biomedical engineering. 

The roster spans three USC schools: the Keck School of Medicine, the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and the Viterbi School of Engineering, with projects at the intersection of technology, medicine, engineering and entrepreneurship.

Wang, who works in biomedical engineering, will use the award money to continue his team’s development of a new method for treating prostate cancer. The group is developing engineered cells that, when activated by an ultrasound, will heat up and destroy cancerous tumors within the patient. The cells cool down when the ultrasound is turned off, making the treatment lead to fewer side effects than current options. While prostate cancer is the team’s current focus, it’s currently developing cells that can be used to treat breast cancer, too. 

Longwei Liu, a co-principal investigator for Wang’s SBIR project, said the grant will be used to further Wang’s research and get future additional funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as well as government-funded SBIR / STTR awards.

“With this grant, we really want to use this money to make everything clinically compatible and get more preliminary results for the future application for federal government grant application,” Liu said. 

Applegate’s research focuses on the creation of an imaging screening device for the ear. At present, there is very little technology available that allows doctors to see through the tympanic membrane to the middle ear, where many diseases that cause conductive hearing loss begin. As a result, it is difficult to see the warning signs for these conditions, which this technology hopes to amend. 

The screening technology will allow doctors to see early diseases, tumors and retraction pockets in the middle ear. It will enable patients who would have otherwise lost their hearing because of lackluster screening to be able to keep it, and it’ll help diagnose and manage symptoms. 

Applegate’s team will use the SBIR / STTR award to finalize the physical product and software and get the device into USC’s otolaryngology department. From there, Applegate said the long term goal is to continue to obtain funding and refine the product to make it as inexpensive as possible so it can be sold to primary care physicians. 

 “[The award will] help us create a device and low cost software that goes along with that, and that will set us up to apply for an SBIR from the [National Institute of Health],” Applegate said. “That would launch a company.”

To continue to support faculty research, USC Research and Innovation will host a series of virtual lectures this fall. These lectures will aim to improve faculty’s understanding of the SBIR / STTR application process and the strength of their proposals, and will be applicable to any such award in the country.

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