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Morgan officials make pitch for tech-transfer funding

Researchers at Morgan State University may have found a source of clean energy in bacteria that they’ve genetically engineered to grow in saltwater.

The quick-growing, greenish organism – think algae – can now grow quickly in nutrient-rich saltwater and be processed into a biofuel that could be used to run eco-friendly vehicles, said Viji Sitther, assistant professor of biology at Morgan State, who is leading the research.

Sitther’s work has allowed the university to file for what will be its second patent – its first full patent, for a protein crystallization process that could assist Alzheimer’s treatments, was awarded earlier this year.

It also illustrates why the university is seeking additional state money to assist its efforts to commercialize research and spin off new companies.

A bill that would provide $3 million over three years so the historically black research institution can beef up its technology-transfer office is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing Wednesday afternoon.

University officials made a push for the additional funding after recent discussion of a partial merger of the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore – a proposal that includes millions of dollars in new annual funding to assist the joint research commercialization efforts of those schools.

“We wanted to make sure that Morgan, as the only public, comprehensive research university [in the city of Baltimore], was not being overlooked,” Morgan State President David Wilson told The Daily Record. “We have all kinds of innovations taking place at Morgan. We are on the cusp of perhaps commercializing two or three of these.”

The legislation, introduced last week on Morgan’s behalf by Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore City, calls for $1 million per year for the university from fiscal 2018 through fiscal 2020.

“I think this is a great investment in Morgan that will return significant dividends to the city of Baltimore and to the state of Maryland,” Wilson said.

The legislation calls for the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO) – which provided a $100,000 grant to support Sitther’s research – to provide technical assistance to MorganState’s Office of Technology Transfer as needed.

TEDCO President and COO John Wasilisin testified in support of the bill before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Wednesday, saying that that a fully functioning tech transfer office is “absolutely critical” for a research university to make the best use of its potential.

Staff from those offices plays a crucial role in both advising researchers when their projects may be ready for commercialization and in alerting investors, entrepreneurs and corporations to the projects within a university they may be interested in, Wasilisin said.

The funds provided in the bill will allow Morgan State to hire the additional staff needed to make its technology transfer office more competitive with other universities, provide incentives for faculty and students to commercialize their ideas, and increase the budget of its patenting efforts, Wilson told the committee.

“This is how the business in the new, innovation economy will be created,” McFadden told the committee. “Morgan is excited to play a key role.”