Dec. 5—New Mexico's oil and gas industry could soon clean up dirty, "produced" water with a new, low-cost filtration system developed by the New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology in Socorro.
The university recently launched a new company, Socorro Membrane Technologies, to fully develop and market the filtration system in partnership with engineering and manufacturing firm Process Equipment & Service Co., or PESCO, based in Farmington.
The partners plan to build a small industrial facility in Socorro to begin producing filtration units, with a first pilot project expected to launch in San Juan County before year-end, said Peter Anselmo, NM Tech's director of new ventures.
"We're preparing now to move forward on the facility," Anselmo told the Journal. "It will begin by producing 20 or 25 filtration modules per month and then scale up. It will all stay in Socorro, creating 10-to-12 high-wage manufacturing jobs to start."
Socorro Membrane Technologies is one of three companies created recently by NM Tech to take new university technologies to market. The other two will commercialize novel, motion-powered, wearable sensors that eliminate any need for batteries, plus a new, powerful disinfectant that researchers in NM Tech's Biology Department invented with common, environmentally friendly materials already used in hundreds of commercial products.
Many more university technologies are in the pipeline as potential candidates to move from lab to market, reflecting concerted efforts over the past seven years to build a bustling tech-transfer program on campus.
Building on legacy
NM Tech is already well known for its past achievements, such as the now globally recognized "nicotine patch" — created originally by local researcher Frank Etscorn — which has earned the university tens of millions of dollars.
More recently, Albuquerque-based cybersecurity firm RiskSense — which launched in 2006 with technology developed at NM Tech — was acquired by Utah-based information technology giant Ivanti for an undisclosed price.
But, until 2014, when the university launched its Center for Leadership in Technology Commercialization, NM Tech had commercialized select technologies only on a case-by-case basis. Today, it manages a comprehensive, collective approach to tech-transfer that includes entrepreneurship training, and assistance for faculty and students through the Office of Innovation and Commercialization, which replaced the Center for Leadership in 2018.
The university offers courses and hands-on experience for students to acquire knowledge and skills to guide technology to market, while also working with academics at the earliest stages of their research to identify potentially marketable innovation, patent it, and create business strategies to commercialize it.
NM Tech now has a new tech-transfer czar, Myrriah Chavez Tomar, who was hired by the university in September as executive director of the Office of Innovation.
Tomar is a biochemist, and long-term veteran of public and private efforts to advance the commercial development of science and technology innovation. She worked previously on tech-transfer at Rice University in Texas and, for the past three years, headed the state Economic Development Department's Office of Science and Technology, giving her broad industry knowledge, and extensive state and national connections.
"My work with the state gave me a pulse on everything going on in New Mexico regarding science and technology startups and existing businesses, and an understanding of their needs and the programs available to support them," Tomar told the Journal. "I have the background and networks in place to connect the university up and to continue building NM Tech into an entrepreneurial institution."
Ingraining entrepreneurship into the university's foundation is a mission supported from the top down. It's enshrined in the branding logo "STEÂ²M." The university trademarked that in 2019 as a play on STEM — the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math — by squaring the "E" to represent both "engineering" and "entrepreneurship."
An annual Inventors and Entrepreneurs Workshop, which the university launched in 2016, has also boosted tech transfer.
The two-day educational conference offers broad networking opportunities, presentations, panel discussions and a pitch competition for local innovators. It brings together faculty and students with investors, veteran entrepreneurs and startup professionals from across the state.
In past years, it has also included high-profile leaders from California, New York and other places, thanks in good part to recruitment efforts by Larry Udell, a veteran venture investor and entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley who has helped expand NM Tech's commercialization programs as an adjunct faculty member since 2014.
The pandemic shut down the conference last year. But it picked up again this October as a hybrid event attended in person by state leaders and online by some out-of-state participants. This time, it was shortened to a one-day event that attracted about 90 people, down from some 180 in years past, Udell said. But the turnout from around New Mexico reflects the state's rapidly maturing ecosystem, with local leaders working together to build a statewide startup economy. And that, in turn, is helping NM Tech.
"New Mexico's startup economy is still in its infancy, but it's beginning to rumble and make waves because of its wealth of resources and institutions," Udell told the Journal. "They're all working together and cooperating under one umbrella, and that's a huge advantage."
Indeed, NM Tech has sought local partnerships to advance its newly formed startup companies, such as PESCO in Farmington to help build Socorro Membrane Technologies.
PESCO helped researchers to scale up their filtration system for industrial use, said new ventures director Anselmo. The university's Petroleum Recovery Research Center built the technology, but it needed PESCO's engineering and manufacturing prowess to turn the original, test-tube-sized filtration units into industrial-sized modules.
"PESCO built them out into four-foot-long, four-inch diameter canisters that can filter up to 1,500 gallons of water per day," Anselmo said. "Our researchers entered a whole new realm of learning about what it takes to actually build lab technology into a marketable product."
The PESCO partnership allows NM Tech to keep the future filtration factory in Socorro.
"It's compelling technology," Anselmo said. "We've turned down venture investment in it because we don't want it to leave the state. We want to keep it all right here."
COVID preventive spray
The university's newly developed disinfection technology is also headed to market through a joint venture with Albuquerque real estate tycoon Paul Silverman, who co-owns Geltmore Partners LLC with his sons. About four years ago, Silverman began investing Geltmore profits in local startups.
"We want to help local companies grow by reinvesting from our real estate business," Silverman told the Journal. "We have our own little fish farm here to grow little fish into big fish that are sustainable, that create jobs and wealth, and that remain in New Mexico."
Silverman and NM Tech finalized the joint venture during the Inventors and Entrepreneurs Workshop in October, forming MycoDelens as a new company to market NM Tech's disinfectant.
Biotechnology researchers Snezna Rogelj and Danielle Turner created the technology by mixing common ingredients from commercial products to make a new material that's proven highly effective against the coronavirus.
"The materials are already in hundreds of available products," Rogelj told the Journal. "The secret sauce is combining the materials in just the right way."
The university has already licensed it to Parnell Pharmaceuticals, which is now marketing it in Europe as a preventive nasal spray.
"People get infected through the nose and spread the virus through their mouth," Rogelj said. "This intercepts the virus and destroys it before it can infect cells. It been shown 99.9% effective through in-vitro testing."
It's been approved for sale only in Europe. But rather than navigate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's lengthy approval process for human applications, MycoDelens will seek FDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval to apply it as a disinfectant in such places as airports, hospitals and schools.
Meanwhile, the university's self-powering, wearable sensor system will be marketed through RD Health Sensing, the third company recently set up by the NM Tech Research Park Corp., which established all three of NM Tech's new startups as university subsidiaries under the state's Research Park Act. Once formed, the university seeks joint ventures to move the companies forward, Anselmo said.
NASA originally developed the motion-activated technology to detect damage on drones. NM Tech researchers transitioned it for use in wearable sensors, beginning with the soles in shoes for diabetics to monitor their feet for medical issues.
The university also plans develop it into garment fiber for clothes to monitor athletes, who currently use battery-powered sensors to collect workout-performance data.
"Our garment technology would power itself," Anselmo said. "You never have to plug it in. You just put it on and movement powers it."