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Biofuels technology is latest example of UCLA spurring economic growth

Originally posted in UCLA Newsroom
By Jeremy Rosenberg

The IPO is the latest in a string of successes for UCLA technologies and another example of the vital role the campus plays in catalyzing both scientific and economic growth. 

"It is very encouraging to my students and postdocs that something we discovered in the lab can contribute to the real world within a few short years," said James C. Liao, the Chancellor's Professor and vice chair of the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Liao co-developed a method for using E. coli bacteria to produce biofuels, a technique that could lead to high-yield, renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. Liao's UCLA colleagues on this project were then-postdoctoral fellow Shota Atsumi and then–visiting professor Taizo Hanai. The technology was licensed in December 2007 from UCLA by Gevo Inc., currently based in Englewood, Colo. Shares of Gevo's February 2011 nine-figure IPO sold at the high end of the estimated price range. 

These and other such technology transfers help fulfill the mission of UCLA as a public land-grant institution; in California alone, more than 100 companies are commercializing inventions from the campus. Other major stories this year include another UCLA startup that went to market and a separate enterprise that licensed a novel UCLA radiochemistry technology

"We are excited about Gevo's IPO and look forward to following their progress as they move this technology to the market, thereby benefiting society and the economy at large," said Earl Weinstein, associate director of UCLA's Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research.

Such successes have a direct financial effect on the campus, which is of particular interest during an era of diminished state funding for higher education. UCLA's invention portfolio generated $32.7 million in income last year — a 12 percent increase over 2009, when the campus ranked first in the nation in "startups initiated" and fourth overall in "invention disclosure," according to data from the Association of University Technology Managers.

UCLA's broad intellectual property portfolio features 1,837 active inventions (as of the most recent reporting, June 30, 2010). These include licensed products and copyrighted technologies that range from aneurysm coils to a stroke thrombectomy device to the tiny and powerful antennas made for handsets, wireless routers and laptop computers. 

Liao's biofuels research that went to Gevo was supported in part by the UCLA–Department of Energy Institute for Genomics and Proteomics and the UCLA–NASA Institute for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration. Liao has since continued to pursue innovations with potential clean-tech applications. Last summer, he was awarded the 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for his groundbreaking work on recycling carbon dioxide for the biosynthesis of higher alcohols. That technology has since been licensed as well by UCLA to a private company.

Gevo is a leading renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company that is developing bio-based alternatives to petroleum-based products using a combination of synthetic biology and chemistry.