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Researchers at ASU double down on their drive to improve and save lives

Skysong Innovations helps Sun Devil researchers translate their work into tangible, scalable solutions to world issues

Mechanical Tree Farm
July 24, 2020

A small Belize village has safe drinking water even though supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 nearly rendered the island of Caye Caulker waterless. 

Navajo Nation families living in the 40% of homes that lack running water now receive up to 10 liters a day — for free. 

An island off the coast of Timor-Leste would have been in a similar position to Caye Caulker, had Zero Mass Water’s SOURCE Hydropanels not been installed last year. 

Some of Arizona State University's most powerful impacts reverberate thousands of miles from its campuses. That’s the end result of ASU’s people, their research and Skysong Innovations, which works across the university to help translate use-inspired research into products and services benefitting society. 

Over the last few years, Skysong Innovations has prioritized startups like Zero Mass Water as a method for technology commercialization, and in so doing, has helped boost ASU’s human impact. Zero Mass Water, a company conceived in a desert and spun out of ASU by Cody Friesen, a professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, is dedicated to the idea that clean water can be a boundless resource. 

Zero Mass Water’s SOURCE Hydropanels use solar energy to pull moisture from the air, bringing clean drinking water to communities and residences well off the grid. The company has raised over $100 million, including its recent Series C round of financing led by BlackRock.

“In the last two decades, developing countries have been able to leapfrog decades of infrastructure investment by simply deploying cell towers to connect remote communities, where they formerly needed telephone lines,” said Kyle Siegal, senior vice president of Skysong Innovations. “Zero Mass Water has the same opportunity to make traditional water delivery methods obsolete, sourcing water right where communities need it.”

In search of COVID-19 solutions, ASU researchers sought help from Skysong Innovations

When ASU President Michael Crow called on ASU to serve its community “through thick and thin” despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, campus researchers were quick to redouble their efforts to improve communities near and far; from setting out to find needed vaccines and therapeutics to diagnostic tools, medical equipment and software.

ASU researchers have stepped up big time, said Patricia Stepp. In her role at Skysong Innovations, she works closely with ASU faculty and staff to protect and commercialize life sciences technologies. 

“We had a deluge of ASU faculty and staff coming to us with ideas about how they could apply their research to the critical problems being caused by COVID-19,” said Stepp. 

In a matter of weeks, the Skysong Innovations team identified and pushed forward 20 COVID-19 technologies; four vaccines, two therapeutics, three diagnostic tools, seven sterilization- and PPE-related pieces of equipment and four software technologies.  

Grant McFadden, the director of the Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy at the Biodesign Institute, was behind one such innovation. A startup based on his work, OncoMyx Therapeutics is developing oncolytic immunotherapies using the myxoma virus to specifically target cancer cells without harming normal cells. When COVID-19 hit, he began examining the potential for modifying the myxoma virus to develop an entirely different vaccine. 

“Dr. McFadden brought the Skysong Innovations team in right away for discussions he was having with biotech companies,” Stepp said.

On a separate front, the Skysong Innovations team is working with various faculty members engaged in a cross-disciplinary, applied-research effort to develop a novel diagnostic for COVID-19. ASU researchers include professors Alexander Green (School of Molecular Sciences and Biodesign Institute), Jennifer Blain Christen (School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering) and Mark Hayes (School of Molecular Sciences).

ASU drives economic impact 

Another high-potential startup is using Klaus Lackner’s carbon-capture technology to develop “mechanical trees” to passively remove carbon dioxide from the air. An independent company, Silicon Kingdom Holdings Limited (SKHL), is aiming to deploy the technology on a global scale. SKHL has external financing committed and will sponsor research at ASU’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, which advances technologies for removing carbon from Earth’s atmosphere. 

Lackner's technology is one of many that have drawn investor attention. Fiscal year 2020 will be a record year in terms of outside financing reported by these companies — around $120 million for startups based on ASU innovations. In the past eight years, ASU startups have raised more than $650 million, reflecting significant outside investor confidence in the ASU research enterprise.  

“These investments represent some of the largest venture funding rounds in Arizona in recent years,” said Augie Cheng, CEO of Skysong Innovations. “Within the next few years, if economic conditions stabilize, we expect ASU-connected startups to approach or surpass $1 billion in all-time funding raised.”

In addition to the societal benefits, the investor dollars coming into Arizona provide a significant boost for the state’s economy. Nationally, ASU-linked startups supported more than 2,100 direct and indirect jobs last year. The cumulative economic impact of ASU startups is now projected to reach $2 billion as early as 2024.

A record year overall 

All this activity helped drive ASU toward another record year for technology commercialization. Researchers and staff submitted 306 invention disclosures, launched 19 new startups, and were named on 137 issued U.S. patents.

ASU is now No. 10 for patents granted to U.S. universities – and No. 12 globally – according to the U.S. National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association. More importantly, these efforts will contribute to ASU’s research mission in lives improved, if not outright saved. 

“The fact that ASU ranks at the top in worldwide patents among universities shows that we have a vibrant, innovative and entrepreneurial culture with a track record of taking on the truly challenging problems of our times,” said Neal Woodbury, interim executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise, ASU’s chief science and technology officer and a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. “I’m incredibly proud of the contributions and achievements of our faculty, researchers and students. This shows what can be accomplished when the academic community is engaged in use-inspired research focused on societal challenges.”

Written by Derek Sarley

Top photo: An artist's rendering of a "mechanical tree" farm using Klaus Lackner's technology. Photo courtesy SKHL.

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