Matt Owens ENG’09/W’09, interned at Agile Sciences & Innova Materials

2008-2009 Ambassador or Entrepreneurship

Agile Sciences (www.agilesci.com) is a spin-off of NC State University commercializing a compound effective at inhibiting and disrupting bacterial biofilms.

Innova Materials (www.innovamaterials.com) is a materials technology company spun out of the University of Pennsylvania, with operations in Philadelphia and Cambridge, MA.

There are few things more exciting than participating in the start of an organization as initial dreams and ideas are translated first into goals and milestones, and subsequently into action to solve a problem in a new and better way. It is invigorating to work with a small, but diverse and passionate team towards shared objectives while knowing the only sure thing to expect is the unexpected along the way.

I worked from two to sixteen hours a day anywhere with an internet connection.

I had the opportunity this summer to split my time between two such emerging ventures, Agile Sciences in Raleigh and Innova Materials, a Penn spinoff operating out of campus and the nearby Science Center facilities. These companies were similar in size and stage, but were different in culture and tempo and I learned a great deal from each. Both had core technologies developed in University labs which had many potential applications. My time was spent prioritizing and researching approaches to pursue applications of their respective platform technologies: a compound capable of inhibiting and disrupting bacterial biofilms at Agile and a novel technique for functionalizing polymer surfaces at Innova.

ambassador_innovaOver the course of the summer the flexibility of both ventures meant I worked from two to sixteen hours a day anywhere with an internet connection, which in practice meant Vance Hall at Penn to a Brooklyn bagel shop and the beaches of North Carolina. Truly a virtual organization, Agile’s small team was spread across the country with the CEO based out of Arizona, the COO in Durham, and the two founders continuing research in the labs of NC State. Innova meanwhile operated out of the basement of Penn’s nanotechnology center before moving to labs in the nearby Science Center late in summer. Research for both involved contacting academic experts and prospective industry partners, including microbiologists in the Netherlands who turned out to be appropriate partners for testing of Agile’s compounds against industrial biofouling. For Innova I focused on investigating possible military applications of their process and prospective grants to develop these. The response from these interviews was encouraging as most believed that Innova’s technology could indeed positively impact the daily lives of soldiers.

I learned a fair deal about the practical nuts and bolts of starting a company and forming business partnerships.

The summer flew by, and I learned a fair deal about the practical nuts and bolts of starting a company and forming business partnerships along with some microbiology; but most importantly I feel that I have taken away a sense of the working atmosphere I am seeking after Penn. As small and growing organizations both venture teams were enthusiastic, pragmatic, and open to changing direction. They have technologies with great commercial potential, but they also have vision and clear missions for how they can make an impact with their work. For Agile, their compounds will eventually reduce hospital infection risk, currently a leading killer within US healthcare. Innova meanwhile has designed their treatment process from the beginning with developing regions in mind, intending to pursue applications such as antimicrobial pipes for rural water distribution alongside more profitable products and partnerships in the US.

Once again I am thankful to WEP for the support of my work with Innova. I look forward to talking with students considering similar work about the experience and hopefully applying the lessons learned to start the process once again with new teams and projects soon.