Before Will Smith saves the world (again), there is a frantic scene in “I am Legend” where the frightened people of Manhattan attempt to flee the suddenly plague-stricken island.
They run and shriek and swear they aren’t infected. But there’s only one way to be sure: Men carrying hand-held scanners – that look more like clunky guns – hold the devices up to the escapees’ eyes and wait. The eyes will tell them if they’re carriers of the deadly virus or not.
It sounds like a futuristic device some movie executive invented to spice up a mediocre action flick. But, actually, the eye scanners are real.
And they’re being developed with the help of the West Virginia University Business Incubator.
About eight years ago, Chris Kolanko licensed two patents from WVU, creating what is now EyeMarker Systems. The company was developed on the premise that the eye is connected to every system in the body, and the right equipment can read the eye’s attributes, or biomarkers, like a book.
Because he once worked in the Naval Research Laboratory and the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, Kolanko was interested how the science could be applied to war, using ocular scanning instruments to detect exposure to chemical and biological toxins.
But how was he going to make scanning devices accurate and portable enough to take to war?
And if the devices worked, wouldn’t doctors want to use them on civilian patients as a non-invasive way to check for disease, too?
And where in the world was he going to get the money to create these things?
A friend to entrepreneurs
The answer to at least one of Kolanko’s problems came quickly. He enlisted the help of his military and research contacts to secure funding, partnered with Wes McGee to take care of the business operations and he joined the WVU Business Incubator to make the rocky transition from employed to employer a little smoother.
The incubator was established in 2004 to provide entrepreneurs – especially those working on University-based technology – with all of the resources they’d need to launch a small business. At other universities, technology transfer offices and business incubators had launched Gatorade and Under Armor.
At WVU, EyeMarker was the first tenant and was quickly followed by other innovators. A former WVU professor created a school-based program called Choosy Kids to fight the obesity epidemic. A former state athlete started SustainU, a T-shirt company that transforms recycled fiber into collegiate apparel. Today the tenants range from sports marketing to biometrics businesses.
Located in the Chestnut Ridge Research Building on WVU’s Evansdale Campus, the incubator offers its tenants office space and help with accounting, graphic design, information technology, corporate services and marketing – the costly, but necessary, components that can drain a new company.
“We don’t want to run their businesses for them,” incubator manager Dusty Gwinn says. “We want to teach them how to run it efficiently.”
For Kolanko, it was a perfect marriage. He’d earned his Ph.D. in genetics from the University and was pleased at the prospect of using WVU’s labs and collaborating with its personnel. The incubator’s proximity to Washington, D.C., where many of his funding sources were located, was a plus, too.
But mostly, the incubator’s helped free Kolanko’s time to work on the science.
“You still chase the money a lot because you’ve got to keep the doors open,” Kolanko says. “But the incubator has taken on a lot of those everyday things that take my time or my staff’s time.”
Now, student interns run the day-to-day doings of the office and monitor defense contracts. Incubator graphic designers keep the Web site chugging. And if the computers crash, someone is right there to fix them.
As for the OSI (that’s EyeMarker speak for ocular scanning instrument), it’s coming along. It works, it detects what it’s designed to detect, but it’s not ready for the field, where the environment can’t be controlled like it is in the lab.
So the incubator’s first tenant has also become its senior tenant. But Kolanko and Gwinn know the line between being an incubator tenant and an incubator graduate is wafer thin, and it’s only a matter of time before EyeMarker joins the ranks of Choosy Kids, one of the incubator’s biggest success stories.
“Our goal,” says Gwinn, “is for our tenants to outgrow us.”
In 2009, Choosy Kids did.
Success breeds success
He’s a bug who lives in the ground.
He’s an alien from a healthy planet.
He’s a frog.
He’s a she.
No one can quite decide what Choosy – the green, furry and football-headed spokescharacter for Choosy Kids – is, but they do know this: He’s cute and kids love him which, according to Choosy Kids President and CEO Linda Carson, is the entire point.
Carson founded Choosy Kids, a program that encourages children to make healthy decisions, when she became overwhelmed, and inspired, by obesity epidemic. As a longtime professor in WVU’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Science and Director of the Motor Development Center, Carson had always been interested in the health of children, but she didn’t think she’d use her interest as a launching pad for her own business.
The creation of the incubator helped her think otherwise.
“WVU was forward-thinking and progressive enough to encourage their professors to create more from their work,” Carson says. “Not all institutions do that. It’s really the carrot on the end of the stick for keeping talented faculty and manifesting creativity.”
Choosy Kids got its big break in 2004 when Head Start chose Carson as the lead trainer for its national obesity prevention initiative. Carson passed many of her Choosy strategies – including integration of the character and music – onto instructors. Now she’s poised to expand the program into hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices. And her Choosy Kids kits, which provide teachers with the resources they need to integrate Choosy’s message into their classrooms, has been selling like crazy through teaching product Web site lakeshorelearning.com.
“We’re literally drowning in opportunity to provide products and services,” Carson says.
In fact, she’s had so many opportunities that she became the incubator’s seventh graduate this winter, trading in her 320 square feet of space at the research building for 5,000 square feet in her new office on Collins Ferry Road.
In all, incubator businesses like Choosy Kids have combined to create 127 full and part-time jobs in Morgantown and have generated more than $3 million in gross revenues in the past five years.
For Gwinn, the incubator is performing its function as a promoter of economic development, especially at a time when many businesses have gone stagnant and many entrepreneurs are afraid to take the big leap.
“Our value comes from our businesses being successful,” Gwinn says.
For many of the tenants, that means more than just money. It means providing the world with an innovation that makes it safer and healthier.
“I’m a teacher, so I don’t know what business people are supposed to feel,” Carson says. “But I feel good that there’s a social good to this.”
By April Johnston
WVU News and Information Services