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ASU helps state attract venture capital for high-technology firms

February 20, 2012

Heliae, a technology-development company based in Chandler, is working to design an industrial process that starts with the creation of high-fat strains of algae and ends with the production of jet fuel and other commercial products.

Fluidic Energy, located in Scottsdale, is dedicated to transforming the way electricity is generated, delivered and consumed through an innovative energy storage approach. Its core technology enables a lower cost and its high energy density delivers ultra-long run times in comparison to traditional batteries.

Both young companies are recipients of the more than $45 million in venture capital that was invested in ASU spin-out companies last year made possible by working with Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), the exclusive intellectual property management and technology transfer organization for ASU.

AzTE works with faculty, investors and industry partners to speed the flow of innovation from research laboratory to the marketplace. ASU faculty submitted a record 187 invention disclosures in fiscal year 2010.

While Arizona has always struggled to attract venture capital, the state managed to pull a rank of 16th in the nation this year, for venture capital dollars invested by state, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Arizona drew $247.5 million in 2011, compared to only $83 million in 2010. 

This is still below the national average on a per capita basis, according to Tom Rex, research administrator at the Seidman Research Institute at the W.P. Carey School of Business. Arizona has a lot of catching up to do, making ASU’s role all the more important.

Venture capitalists invest in firms that have a high potential for growth but are not ready to do an initial public offering of stock. Venture capital activity can be used to measure the number of potentially high-growth firms being started, which typically are innovative high-technology firms, such as biotechnology enterprises.

AzTE actually managed to secure funding for five spin-off firms, though three did not maintain a presence in Arizona. Most venture capitalists want the firms they invest in to locate near them, says Charlie Lewis, ASU vice president of venture development.

"It's a testimony to the quality of research coming out of ASU that these five companies were able to attract venture capital funding," says Lewis. "Arizona continues to struggle with the fact that few venture capital funds are located here.

"Venture capital is very important to the country as a whole. We need folks who are willing to take risks on early stage technology that is promising but unproven. Otherwise many innovations may never make it to the marketplace."

ASU also played a significant role in the launching of a new Arizona-based venture capital fund last year, Greener Capital. AzTE helped the firm connect to ASU researchers and also is a limited partner in the fund.  The company opened an office at ASU SkySong last year.

"Our new relationship with AzTE is a natural fit, because we focus on early-stage entrepreneurs who offer unconventional, even radical solutions to major problems in the production and management of energy," says Thomas Cain, a partner. "Arizona State University has a wealth of research taking place to address breakthrough solutions to our energy needs."