The University of Texas-Pan American's partnership with the Rio South Texas Region to increase technology-based economic development got a significant boost Sept. 14 with the announcement of major funding toward UTPA's first regional technology start-up company FibeRio Technology Corporation.
The Texas Emerging Technology Fund (TETF) awarded FibeRio a $1.5 million Commercialization Award toward the development of the company's novel Forcespinning™ method of creating nanofibers, a technology co-invented by Drs. Karen Lozano and Kamalaksha Sarkar, both faculty members in UTPA's College of Engineering and Computer Science. The $1.5 million will be added to private financing led by the venture capital firm Cottonwood Technology Fund, based in El Paso and focused on investing in technology-based new businesses in the Rio Grande corridor.
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen said the receipt of external funding for FibeRio will make a tremendous difference in the Valley.
"The way to improve the Valley is through education, it is through research, it is through partnering the way we are now with all the economic development leaders here in this Valley. Today is a day of validation, today is the day that says we are doing the right things at Pan Am and in our communities ... and it is just the beginning," he said.
The University is co-founder and an equity holder in the company that will produce the machines using the Forcespinning™ technology to produce nanofibers in greater quantities and materials and at less cost. Nanofibers are microscopic fibers used in many manufacturing applications including medical and filtration materials, textiles, personal care products including diapers and cosmetics, insulation, and energy storage. The new Forcespinning™ process also has great potential for many new applications of nanofibers including drug delivery and tissue engineering.
Jackie Michel, UTPA's director of Innovation and Intellectual Property, who led the commercialization process on behalf of the University, said FibeRio is a perfect example of how effectively transferring and leveraging the knowledge and expertise from UT Pan Am can enhance economic development in the region. She also described it as "remarkable" for a company to get both venture capital and TETF funding within the first year of its launch.
"It is a testament to FibeRio's CEO Ellery Buchanan and his team," Michel said.
Buchanan, who introduced key members of FibeRio's management team at a press conference held to announce the funding, said the company's production output will begin with smaller research scale machines and advance to large scale, high output continuous in-line processing equipment. Buchanan called the TETF an effective collaboration between the public and private sectors to spur new industry and jobs and expressed his thanks to all the parties involved in their success so far.
"We thank UTPA and local community leaders for their commitment to advancing economic growth and the technology industry in the Rio Grande Valley," he said.
Steve Ahlenius, CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, called the selection of FibeRio to receive one of its Innovation Grants an easy one.
"This company has done everything right in terms of management team, technology, the number of patents they have - so this was really a no-brainer on our part to recognize that this is a first class company and a first class idea," he said. "You see this type of company coming out of Austin or the Boston area or Silicon Valley. We hope this is going to take off and be a model of future things coming out of the University."
Beto Pallares, managing partner of Cottonwood Technology Fund, said his firm was impressed from its first meeting with FibeRio's management team and the inventors. They also recognized the reciprocal support the University has for the region and the different regional stakeholders have for the University.
"We found that this was the most seasoned and prepared management team a startup could gather. And the relationship with the University and the support the University has provided to the company was exactly what would help a company be successful," Pallares said.
The company will also generate the need for a number of high-level engineering jobs that can potentially be filled by local graduates. FibeRio has agreed to fund research at the University which might lead to future inventions that could benefit the university and help transform the Rio South Texas region into an emerging high-tech industrial and advanced manufacturing center.
The TETF, a $200 million initiative created by the Texas Legislature in 2005 at the governor's request, promotes development and commercialization of new technologies and attracting and creating jobs in technology fields. A 17-member TETF Advisory Committee of high-tech leaders, entrepreneurs and research experts review potential projects forwarded by seven Regional Centers of Innovation and Commercialization (RCIC) created to administer the TETF program statewide. Eva-Jean Dalton, executive director of the Rio Tech Fund, Inc., the RCIC serving the Valley, said they have been successful in helping four companies get TETF funding.
"The Rio Tech Fund was established to help fill the gap that prevented entrepreneurial growth in the Rio Grande Valley region. FibeRio is such a success story for our region and we wish them our best," she said.
John Schrock Sr., from McAllen and president and CEO of Lifetime Industries, Inc., serves on the TETF Advisory Committee, which recommends the fund's allocations to the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House. Schrock said the unique nature of FibeRio's advanced nanofiber manufacturing process and projected commercial value made this venture an ideal candidate for the Fund's stated goal of supporting Texas-based companies in the field of high tech engineering development that leads to the subsequent profitable manufacturing of new products within the state.
"The collaboration of UTPA's School of Engineering with a startup company located in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, is totally in line with the governor's original concept for the TETF mission. As a member of the TETF Advisory Committee I am very encouraged that the UTPA venture with FibeRio will be only the beginning of a long mutually successful relationship of the University with many new ventures right here in our region," Schrock said.
FibeRio is headquartered in Edinburg, Texas and can be found online at www.fiberiotech.com. To learn more about the TETF, go to www.emergingtechfund.com. To find out about the process of research commercialization at UTPA, go to www.utpa.edu/oiip.