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Small GR firm receives grant for research with WMU

Tetra Discovery Partners will work on compounds for treating depression.

June 21, 2013
| By Pete Daly |
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Small GR firm receives grant for research with WMU
Student Anirudh Chowdhary, left, and Mark Gurney test the effectiveness of drugs that someday may bring relief to people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or major forms of depression. Photo by Jim Gebben

Eight small firms in Michigan, including a new research group in Grand Rapids, have received Small Company Innovation Program grants that will enable them to participate in research projects with Michigan universities.

Tetra Discovery Partners in Grand Rapids received a grant enabling it to work with a researcher from Western Michigan University, according to the Michigan Corporate Relations Network.

The grants began in early 2012 to enable research partnerships between small Michigan businesses and a collaboration of six public universities, with the goal being to help drive innovation and commercialization. The MCRN consists of Wayne State University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Western Michigan University, plus the University Research Corridor. 

MCRN is supported by funding from the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Through a competitive process, the following projects were selected for funding as part of the latest round of SCIP grant awards:

  • Advanced Technologies of Michigan Inc. and University of Michigan-Dearborn
  • Climate Technologies Corp. and Wayne State University
  • Coy Laboratory Products Inc. and U-M Ann Arbor
  • NextCat and Wayne State University
  • SAKOR Technologies Inc. and Michigan State University
  • Somino Global L3C and University of Michigan-Dearborn
  • Stellar Fuels LLC and Wayne State University
  • Tetra Discovery Partners LLC and Western Michigan University

Tetra Discovery Partners was organized in November 2010 by Mark Gurney. He said since then the company has been awarded two major grants: one from the National Institute of Mental Health to work on an anti-depression drug and the other from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes to work on a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are a lean biotech, so we outsource most of what we do,” said Gurney. 

The firm has four employees but is planning to add two or three more in the next year.

Total funding through those two projects is close to $15 million over the next three to five years, said Gurney.

Gurney is a California native with a Ph.D. from Caltech and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He moved to Michigan in 1995 to join the newly formed Pharmacia & Upjohn, where he led teams working on pharmaceuticals for potential treatment of Alzheimer’s.

In 2000, Gurney moved to Iceland to join a biotech firm, where he spent four years. Then he was involved in the acquisition of a chemistry-focused contract research organization in Chicago. Gurney was responsible for operations at the CRO until 2009, when he moved back to Michigan. 

Tetra Discovery Partners use two research labs. One is in the Grand Rapids SmartZone life sciences incubator at GVSU’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.

The other lab is at the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center in Kalamazoo, where Tetra does medicinal chemistry research. That location gives it access to the faculty and research facilities at WMU, which led to its collaboration with Prof. Lisa E. Baker in the psychology department.

The project is directed toward developing a new drug to treat depression, with Tetra’s contribution being the synthesis of chemical compounds that indicate an anti-depression characteristic.

“Our collaboration with Prof. Baker then lets us test those compounds in suitable animal models,” he said, adding, “She is a very experienced researcher in the field of animal models of psychiatric disease.”

The SCIP grant is an important program within the state of Michigan, said Gurney, because it helps put small businesses in contact with collaborators at the state’s main research universities who can help bring new technology to commercialization.

“The usual model is that university researchers create intellectual property and then the university attempts to find a partner” for commercialization, he said, adding that “in this case, it’s the opposite direction.”

Lorelei Davis, associate director of Michigan State University Business-Connect, is the coordinator for the SCIP grants. She said there are several goals of the program, a major one being “to help companies get used to working with universities. There are a lot of resources (at Michigan’s research universities), but many companies don’t know how to find it or access it,” she said.

The first step is to establish a legal relationship between the two, and help the business determine if it really has a potential new technology, she said.

The SCIP grants from the MEDC can range up to $40,000, with the company matching that in cash and the university partner providing an equivalent value in facility and employee costs.

A company that approaches one of the six collaborating universities may end up with another university. Davis said MSU has referred SCIP clients to the University of Michigan or Michigan Tech or Western — whichever school is the best place for that type of technology and company.

Tetra Discoveries’ grant came in the second round of SCIP funding; Davis noted there will be a third round. The deadline for consideration is Sept. 27. Interested companies should visit the MCRN website at michigancrn.org.

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