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UB official helps startup companies get off the ground

Boston, San Diego and Pittsburgh are among the cities that have seen economic boosts as innovations produced in the laboratory have been translated to startup companies and high-tech jobs.

For more than a decade, the Buffalo Niagara region has sought to make a similar transition, from a manufacturing economy to one that thrives on the brainpower of its scientists and researchers.

The University at Buffalo is key to those efforts, and the official leading this push is Dr. Robert J. Genco, a vice provost and director of UB's Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR) since 2002.

Genco oversees STOR as well as UB's Technology Incubator, where nascent companies are nurtured before they are ready to strike out on their own.

The Silver Creek native graduated from Canisius College, UB Dental School and the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a doctorate in microbiology and immunology.

A UB faculty member since 1967, Genco holds 11 patents and was a founder of one company, Therex, whose products include a drug that inhibits dental-plaque formation and a nano calcium sulfate for bone regeneration.

>Q: What is the purpose of STOR? How would you sum up its mission?

A: The mission of STOR is, I think very simply stated, to bring the fruits of discovery of the faculty and students at the university to benefit the public.

And that's usually done by protecting intellectual property and licensing the protected property to a company -- either a startup or an existing company -- which will then put the needed resources to developing the product and bringing it to the public.

>Q: How successful do you believe STOR has been?

A: Essentially, what [a 2010 Regional Institute survey] found is that there were at that point something like 183 businesses that we had either started or helped, either through the incubator or through STOR. And 139 were still in business at that time. Of those 139, approximately 85 were graduates of the incubator and the rest were actual startups that we participated in.

>Q: At what point do you tell a company in the incubator that it's not working and you haven't made the progress we expected you to make?

A: Well, oftentimes the companies in the incubator that do fail -- and many do -- will know. They'll have difficulty making their payroll, they'll have difficulty making their lease payments. They're not making sales, they're not making progress, they're not making their goals. So they usually know.

>Q: What is some of the research taking place at UB that you're excited about?

A: Personally, of course, being in the biomedical area, I'm very excited about what's happening in the tissue engineering area, regenerating blood vessels, regenerating bone.

I think there's some very nice things happening in the imaging area. We have a new startup company that is about to be formed in the imaging area. The area of nanomaterials is very exciting too. One of our [biotech researchers] Paras Prasad is very active in developing these nanoparticles that are being used now by Photolitec, which is a company formed between Roswell [Park Cancer Institute] and UB, to localize these particles to tumors. And they'll be radiated to kill the tissue, but the nanoparticle is the essence of that technology.

>Q: How important is technology transfer to UB's overall mission, and how important are UB's tech transfer efforts to the region?

A: Many cities have really capitalized on their universities. For example, Boston, Route 128 is just a hotbed of activity because of the universities and the startups that they've generated over 40 years. I mean, MIT, talk about an entrepreneurial culture, every faculty and every student is expected to start a business. Here it's an exception. One day I hope we get to that point where it's an expectation.

>Q: Do the companies coming out of UB or other academic institutions have the potential to revitalize the area economy, or even begin to replace the manufacturing economic sector?

A: I think it does. It has done that in other areas. But the venture capital, and the angel capital, is probably 1/2 0th of what is needed. We can cite example after example of our startup companies that are barely making it financially. And that's a shame.

>Q: What is the challenge of making sure the jobs created stay in WNY, so that we reap the benefits?

A: That's interesting. You probably will lose some of these startup businesses. However, the national statistics show that 75 percent of startups stay around the university. We think the reason is these are university people. They have their families here, and they want to stay nearby.

>Q: What do you point to as the greatest success story that's come out of UB research?

A: In universities, the big home runs are so uncommon that they're outliers. What really generates the economy are these small businesses hiring 30, 40, 50 people. And if you get enough of them you'll have a major effect on the economy. I think we're moving in the right direction. Would I like to see it go further and faster? Of course.