News Release

Two U of M startups named among national “Best University Startups 2017”


Two University of Minnesota startups were recognized among the most promising in the nation today by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), an association of university startup officers.

Photonic Pharma and ThermChem, two companies launched by the Office for Technology Commercialization’s Venture Center, were among NCET2’s 40 Best University Startups 2017, selected from 200 submissions from universities across the U.S. The startups were chosen by representatives from leading companies for their technology’s potential, the experience of the business team and the invention or service’s commercial feasibility.

The 40 recognized startups represent early-stage companies with high potential to create jobs, advance technology and meet societal challenges in health, the environment and other fields. These companies will present as part of University Startups Conference and Demo Day in Washington, D.C., on April 18-20.

“We are excited to see Photonic Pharma and ThermChem receive this much-deserved recognition as promising startup companies that can transform the fields of drug development and wastewater processing,” said Russ Straate, associate director of the Venture Center. “These companies, which number among the more than 110 startups launched by the Venture Center since 2006, show that businesses across the country understand the high potential of U of M startups. The recognition is a testament to our researchers’ commitment to scientific discovery, our partners’ entrepreneurial expertise and our collective effort to bring about real-world impact.”

Photonic Pharma, based in Minneapolis, combines breakthroughs in fluorescence technologies, which operate on the way compounds absorb and emit light, to more precisely screen compounds for drug development. This technology, which allows drug developers to visualize cell activity, can potentially transform the early phases of pharmaceutical development.

Launched in December 2015, Photonic Pharma is based on scientific discoveries by two biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics researchers in the College of Biological Sciences: Razvan Cornea, Ph.D., who is also the company’s cofounder and vice president of research; and David Thomas, Ph.D., who is also the company’s founder and president.

“I am thrilled that our company has been selected as one of the 40 Best University Startups,” Thomas said. “Photonic’s technology platform is based on patented research from my lab at the University that resulted in game-changing breakthroughs in drug discovery. The technology’s promise is demonstrated by Photonic’s recent successful collaboration with a major pharmaceutical company.”

The second company, ThermChem, based in Portland, Ore., is developing an energy-efficient method for reducing wastewater from municipal and agricultural sewage wastes and recovering lipids, phosphorus and nitrogen. Using hydrothermal carbonization technology, the company processes organic matter from agriculture, food and beverage production, and ethanol residues, along with sludge from wastewater treatment plants.

Launched in October 2015, ThermChem is led by Bryan Redd, president and founder, and is based on scientific discoveries by Steven Heilmann, Ph.D., formerly of the U’s BioTechnology Institute (BTI); and Kenneth Valentas, Ph.D., adjunct professor with BTI.

Later this month, NCET2’s University Startups Conference and Demo Day will demonstrate the key role of university startup enterprises in commercializing technologies that can address societal challenges and bolster national competitiveness and economic prosperity. The event will include presentations by the Best University Startups to potential investors and partners, as well as conference sessions to discuss best practices for creating, supporting and funding university startups.

For more information about the University Startups Conference & Demo Day, visit:

For more information on the U of M Venture Center, visit:

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