University of Vermont

Office of Technology Commercialization

UVM Announces Winners of SPARK-VT Faculty Pitch Competition

Satellite Propulsion System, Drug for Treating Disease Caused by Hantaviruses Are Winning Entries

SPARK VT winner
UVM Larner College of Medicine assistant professor Jason Botten won a SPARK-VT award for his team’s work to create the first therapeutic for treating a life-threatening disease caused by hantaviruses. The computer displays cells infected with a similar virus. A second SPARK award was granted to a team that has developed a cost-effective propulsion system for small satellites. (Photo: Erin Post)

Two University of Vermont-affiliated research teams have been awarded SPARK-VT grants by the university to help commercialize their work and move it a step closer to the marketplace.

UVM Ph.D. alumnus Ryan McDevitt; his doctoral advisor, Darren Hitt, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences; and Patrick Lee, an assistant professor in the department, won for the cost-effective propulsion system for small satellites they have developed, which is poised to address the coming revolution in the miniaturized satellite market. A second team, led by Jason Botten, an assistant professor of medicine in UVM’s Larner College of Medicine, was recognized for its work to create the first therapeutic for preventing and treating a life-threatening disease caused by hantaviruses.

At UVM’s annual SPARK-VT competition, faculty pitch their commercialization ideas to a panel of experts who challenge them with questions, then deliberate in private before announcing the winning teams, who each receive a $50,000 award.  

“Congratulations to both teams for submitting high quality entries that have a great deal of promise,” said Richard Galbraith, UVM’s vice president for research. “This year, as in past years, the winning projects show a high degree of sophistication, both in their underlying science and in their grasp of the realities of the marketplace.”   

“The growth of SPARK-VT from one participating department in 2012 to 14 today is evidence that a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship is taking root at UVM,” said UVM provost David Rosowsky. “Each year, we see a growing number of faculty interested in commercialization of their work. By providing strong support mechanisms for translating their work into commercial application, we will continue to be able to attract outstanding faculty working in areas with the greatest potential for commercialization and societal impact. This year’s winners, and our previous SPARK-VT winners, demonstrate the power and the potential of this important element of our academic ecosystem."

The project proposed by McDevitt, Hitt and Lee outlines their plan to develop a precision, cost-effective microthruster for small satellites that will enable them to make small adjustments to their position and orientation in orbit. The work complements a project the team received a SPARK-VT award for last year. That proposal was focused on a high-performance thruster for small satellites that would allow them to transfer into new orbits (or de-orbit at end-of-life). Both microthruster projects are being developed by a company co-founded by McDevitt called Benchmark Space Systems (formerly GreenScale Technologies). One of the largest technical challenges facing constellations of small satellites is the ability to maintain relative orientation, a $1 billion market opportunity within the emerging $6 billion small satellite market.

Botten, who has studied hantaviruses for more than 20 years, has assembled an international multidisciplinary team of virologists, clinicians, immunologists and industry partners to develop an effective therapeutic against cardiopulmonary syndrome caused by hantaviruses (HCPS), for which there are no FDA-approved treatment options or vaccines. Their therapy has the potential to be a first-line antiviral for the treatment or prevention of hantavirus disease in the Americas.  Climate change has brought rodent populations into closer contact with humans, increasing the risk of infection with hantavirus. HCPS is responsible for killing roughly 40 percent of afflicted patients.

SPARK-VT is designed to help bridge the divide between research and the marketplace by bringing promising researchers together with business innovators and biotech leaders. The program offers frequent workshops to faculty interested in commercializing their research on topics ranging from intellectual property to market analysis to the art of the pitch. A select group of faculty who’ve submitted SPARK proposals are invited to make presentations to a panel of 12 leaders from biotech, pharmaceutical, business, engineering, finance and legal fields. Panel members ask questions, challenge presenters on the details of their plans and offer suggestions. The $50,000 seed funding comes from UVM’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Office of the Provost.

Since its launch in 2012, SPARK-VT has funded 16 faculty proposals. It has spawned two start-up companies with three more in development and has been a factor in prompting faculty to submit 18 grant applications in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs of the federal government. Half of the proposals were funded, a high rate of success.