Date October 6, 2023
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Faculty inventions, startups shine at inaugural Innovation at Brown Showcase

As part of Rhode Island Startup Week, business leaders, investors and entrepreneurs convened in Providence to connect with Brown scientists launching breakthrough technologies across health, life sciences and biotechnology.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Rhode Island may be the nation’s smallest state, but it is bursting with big ideas. Many of the Ocean State’s most promising innovations, discoveries and entrepreneurial ventures stepped into the limelight in early October for the third Startup Week hosted by RIHub, a nonprofit network that supports the acceleration of ideas into successful businesses.

This year, the state’s entrepreneurs, startup founders, venture capitalists and industry leaders had the chance to preview cutting-edge technologies, startups and innovative ideas emerging out of Brown University.

The inaugural Innovation at Brown Showcase, held at Venture Café Providence, featured 25 early-stage startups led by Brown faculty, students and alumni. With support from Brown Technology Innovations, part of the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research, Brown faculty can transition research ideas into impactful commercial ventures. According to data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Brown secured the second most patents in Rhode Island in 2022; and PitchBook recently ranked Brown in the top 20 for number of startup founders among universities worldwide.

In remarks at the showcase event, Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said he sees the city’s entrepreneurial talent as a fundamental economic engine that contributes to the region’s strength. Providence, he said, is “poised for explosive growth” and is one of the best cities for startup ventures to succeed.

“I mean it sincerely when I say that part of the economic future and vitality of Providence is the intellectual capital and private industry that spins out of our institutions of higher learning,” Smiley said. “Our value proposition here is that you have the opportunity to be a very big fish in a small pond — what you get in Rhode Island is that access to decision-makers that you don’t get anywhere else. I hope Brown makes this an annual event, because it's important to continue to foster and cultivate this community to make sure that the ability for anyone who wants to be that big fish in a small pond is able to do so, because that's the promise of Providence."

Jill Pipher, vice president for research at Brown, said during the event that faculty innovation will continue to flourish as Brown advances a plan to increase investments in research across all academic disciplines.  

“Brown is brimming with creativity and ideas that have the power to improve the way we live and work — these ideas and inventions are happening all the time in our research labs, studios and even in quiet corners across campus,” said Pipher, whose joint work in cryptography with two fellow Brown faculty members led to the development of a patented public key encryption system and a startup company called NTRU Cryptosystems, which was acquired by a major security software company. “We are proud and amazed at that work. That’s why we’re on a path to increase our investment in the research enterprise at Brown, which will create more opportunities to bring these discoveries in the form of startups or collaborations with industry to benefit our community and the world.”

The showcase featured talks with industry investors and biotech leaders, a panel discussion with Rhode Island startups, and innovation awards recognizing outstanding achievements in entrepreneurship, research and innovation within Brown’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Much of the program centered on networking, building new relationships with potential collaborators, and displaying new technologies led by Brown faculty inventors and entrepreneurs.

Brown Technology Innovations plans to make the Innovation at Brown Showcase an annual event that spotlights the newest commercial ventures in medicine, science, technology and engineering emerging from Brown research. Leaders from three ventures — XM Technologies, Adept Materials and Tinos Therapeutics — shared insights on their own startup processes during this year’s event.

XM Technologies: Treating chronic conditions by repairing diseased tissues in organs 

Brown professor Jeffrey Morgan is no stranger to the process of transforming a scientific discovery from the research lab into a market-ready product. Early in his career, he co-founded Somatix Corporation — an early gene-therapy company — and after joining Brown in 2002, he invented a 3D Petri dish that can grow cells in three dimensions, a technology that scientists around the world now use to produce more realistic 3D microtissues for drug development, tissue transplantation and for the replacement of animals in testing. 

Now, the biomedical engineer and researcher is pioneering new ways to treat heart disease, kidney failure and other chronic conditions by tapping into the therapeutic potential of the extracellular matrix (ECM) — the scaffolding material that organizes cells into tissues and organs. The body’s ECM consists of a complex network comprising hundreds of proteins and supportive structures that facilitate the continual generation, expansion and restoration of tissues and organs throughout life. 

“We know that the extracellular matrix has therapeutic potential, and learning more about it is exciting and a somewhat untapped area of research,” Morgan said. “The fact that we’re now making designer ECM in the laboratory means that we can control the process, and we can make compositions of it that harness its properties to develop innovative medical treatments, regenerative therapies, tissue engineering solutions and more.” 

In most chronic diseases, including heart failure, the ECM becomes abnormal, leading to chronic inflammation, fibrosis and hypoxia, or reduced oxygen supply. Morgan, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, developed a technology that makes uniform ECM particles in the lab that can potentially be used to repair diseased organ tissues. Prepared in the lab using microtissues of stem cells , the injectable ECM particles can interrupt the process that creates fibrosis, inflammation and hypoxia. The biomaterials, for example, could help the heart heal after a heart attack. 

With internal seed funding from the Brown Biomedical Innovations to Impact Fund and support from Brown Technology Innovations, Morgan partnered with life sciences entrepreneur Frank Ahmann to form XM Therapeutics in 2022. The Providence-based biotech company, led by Ahmann as president and CEO, recently secured an initial round of funding from Slater Technology Fund and is working to develop the technology further and eventually test the therapeutic in clinical trials with an initial focus on cardiovascular and fibrotic indications.

University-led research that leads to the creation of spin-off companies, Morgan said, contributes to Rhode Island’s entrepreneurial ecosystem: “The age of biotechnology is upon us,” he said. “Translational science that heads toward commercialization is important, and it’s part of an exciting and growing ecosystem of innovation here in Rhode Island.”

Adept Materials: Using material science to make better buildings

Buildings — such as homes, offices, stores and schools — are major consumers of energy. Heating, cooling and electricity for residential and commercial buildings account for roughly 40% of total U.S. energy consumption annually. Brown biophysics professor Derek Stein finds that figure pretty alarming.

"More than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are traced back to buildings," Stein said. "When it comes to energy conservation, people in my field of physics get excited about solar and wind energy, batteries or transportation, but what about buildings? It's an area that hasn't garnered much attention among academics."

In 2014, Stein was part of an award-winning collaboration to design a house that uses 90% less energy than a typical home. On the heels of that international competition, Stein set out to discover how building materials could be engineered to optimize energy use without sacrificing cost, comfort or durability.

By mimicking the physics of vapor control in plant leaf transpiration, Stein developed a breakthrough technology that infuses materials with unique moisture management properties that save energy, reduce water damage and regulate temperature and humidity. The two-layer system provides directional vapor control by allowing water vapor to pass easily in one direction while resisting its motion in the other. It also regulates humidity by storing or releasing excess moisture; the material even regulates temperature by storing and releasing heat. The multifunctional technology can be applied to construction, health care and textile materials ranging from plywood to polyester. 

With support from Brown Technology Innovations, Stein patented the proprietary technology and formed Adept Materials in 2018, a startup he leads as founder and CEO. The company, which has offices in Providence and Somerville, Massachusetts, is now working to secure early-stage funding to bring to market its first direct-to-consumer product — interior paints and primers.

Directional Vapor Control


Adept Materials allow water vapor to pass easily in one direction while resisting its motion in the other.

Infused with moisture management properties, Adept paints and primers, according to Stein, can help homeowners combat water damage and mold growth in places like bathrooms, kitchens and more.

"Many people have issues controlling humidity and mold in their bathrooms," he said. "This is something that this technology does very well. The Adept paints can offer a straightforward solution that makes the bathroom prettier, but it also performs better and avoids problems like mold that cause health issues and unsightly stains."

Stein expects Adept’s technology to be applied in other sectors, including packaging, medical, automotive, military and agriculture. He said his vision for the company is to produce smart materials that offer more functionality and improve energy efficiency.

"I would like the company to become a technology shop that is an expert in developing materials that solve practical problems based on a deep knowledge of how materials and the laws of physics intertwine," Stein said. "There's a lot of room for innovation. If I compare where we are now with our energy use in buildings to how the natural world and how plants regulate themselves in different environments, there's a lot of room to improve, and I would love to contribute to that progress."

Tinos Therapeutics: A new way to target cancer

For its immense potential to treat many diseases, RNA-based therapeutics, a class of drugs that leverage the properties of RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules, are gaining attention among medical and biopharmaceutical leaders. Messenger RNA (mRNA), for example, is widely recognized as the breakthrough technology that enabled the COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. 

Through cutting-edge research, pioneering scientists, including Nikos Tapinos, an associate professor of neurosurgery and neuroscience at Brown, are now advancing breakthroughs in RNA technology to take on countless other diseases, including cancer, Tapinos said. 

“It’s an inspiring time right now to be focused on RNA therapeutics — this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to the research team that pioneered the RNA modification technology that led to the development of the COVID vaccines,” Tapinos said. “For years, researchers have grown to understand how modifying RNA as a therapeutic will help save patients, and with that knowledge, we now have the COVID vaccine. RNA therapeutics is the next frontier.”

Tapinos has dedicated more than 10 years to investigating treatments for glioblastoma, the most prevalent and aggressive type of brain tumor. Despite treatment efforts, tumor recurrence is inevitable primarily due to the presence of a type of cancer cell called glioma stem cells (GSCs). 

By unlocking an understanding of how to modify RNA molecules produced within a cancer cell, Tapinos developed a new RNA therapeutic discovery platform, named the Epi-CODE™ RNA Platform. Leveraging the knowledge of RNA modifications of cancer stem cells, he developed RNA therapeutics that can stop tumor growth and increase overall survival rates for hard-to-treat cancers, including glioblastoma, melanoma, colorectal, ovarian and non-small cell lung cancer. Findings from preclinical research show excellent efficacy in mouse models of cancer.

In his lab at Brown, Tapinos also found that some specific members of a class of molecular targets known as enhancer RNA (eRNA) are essential for the growth of GSCs. With funding from the Brown Biomedical Innovations to Impact Fund and support from Brown Technology Innovations, Tapinos has developed a drug to interfere with these eRNAs, stop the growth of GSCs and change the treatment course for glioblastoma. 

Tapinos is motivated to bring these drugs to the market. To do that, he co-founded Tinos Therapeutics, Inc. in March with pharmaceutical and biotech executive Wendy Perrow, who serves as CEO. The startup’s team is now focused on raising funding to further test the RNA platform’s efficacy through clinical trials and then ultimately FDA approval, which they hope to secure by 2025. By commercializing his scientific discovery, Tapinos is delivering on what he aspired to accomplish as a researcher. 

“For me, the ultimate goal of why I entered science and medicine is to serve people,” Tapinos said. “The only way to serve people is to produce something new, something better that can save lives. The minute that something is discovered in my lab that can save the life of a patient or a child, this, for me, is why we work so hard.”