Turning research into a profitable enterprise

A Dallas prof hopes to tap the hot market for medical devices

The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, July 2, 2005

Harold "Skip" Garner has worked on everything from radar-absorbing paint on the stealth fighter to the human genome project.

Now he's turning his attention to bringing a new dimension to the world of medical imaging.

Ultimately, Dr. Garner says, his holographic display will find its way into military applications and change the way we watch television.

For now, though, Dr. Garner, a professor of biochemistry and internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, is focused on pushing his prototype out of the research lab and into a stand-alone company.

Dr. Garner, 51, is trying to jump into an $80 billion-plus market for medical devices and diagnostic products that excites venture investors - and has them ready to back their enthusiasm with growing piles of cash.

Venture firms plowed $444.5 million into start-up device firms in the first quarter of 2005, up nearly 30 percent from the same period a year ago, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

Growth in the device market itself is sturdy, too, though not quite as dynamic as the venture interest in start-ups. The Advanced Medical Technology Association estimates that sales were $84.4 billion in 2003, up almost 5 percent over 2002, the last year for which data are available.

Dr. Garner says his company will be operational in a few months.

He declines to talk about financial projections for the company but says he is pursuing venture investments.

Dr. Garner is assembling a management team but has no interest in running a company.

"Never," he said. "I don't even balance my checkbook."

That sort of technology transfer - turning a research project into either a spinoff firm or licensing the technology to an existing company - needs to happen more often, Dr. Garner and others say.

How it works

The holographic technology is housed in a black box roughly the size of a dorm room refrigerator and is powered by digital light processing chips created by Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc.

A system of lasers and mirrors produces rough green and red three-dimensional images floating in a stack of liquid crystal displays that can switch from translucent to opaque as needed.

But the helicopter, jet plane and dog skull rotating on the LCD screens herald a time when doctors can examine detailed, 3D models of the human heart, brain and other organs, Dr. Garner said.

The holographic display could also be adapted to show fighter pilots much more data about their planes and their surroundings while in flight, he said.

Don't expect to see a 3D television anytime soon, though.

"The expectation for TVs now is very high," Dr. Garner said, but it will take time to refine the holographic technology enough to produce an image that's both three-dimensional and in high definition.

Dr. Garner knows the bulky model in his lab isn't ready for commercial applications. "It's going from scientific prototype to industrial manufacturing that makes it cheaper and more robust," he said.

Irene Rombel, a former assistant professor at UT Southwestern who pursued her MBA at Southern Methodist University en route to becoming a biomedical investor, teamed with a couple of classmates at SMU to develop a business plan for Dr. Garner's prospective company.

Dr. Rombel, now with Dallas-based Cimarron Biomedical Investors, said the opportunities for Dr. Garner's potential firm are substantial.

"To get it from the current prototype to the next stage, which is more of a commercial product, it's going to require some money," she said.

Matt Blanton, founder and chief executive officer of StarTech Early Ventures, which invests in early-stage companies, said his company looked into investing in Dr. Garner's display technology.

While the deal never came through, it wasn't because the technology was unimpressive, Mr. Blanton said. "There's definitely commercial value in what he and his team are doing."

Mr. Blanton said UT Southwestern is one of the few universities in the state that is doing a good job of spinning off research projects into commercial properties.

"In the state of Texas, in 2003, at state schools alone, there was about $2.2 billion of research grants" from various sources, he said. "That's really good news. On the other hand, how many new start-up companies have we seen resulting from that tremendous amount of research? Not very many."

Mr. Blanton said those start-ups are needed to create jobs and drive innovation.

Wearing many hats

Dr. Garner currently has research under way in everything from creating new genetic tests for diseases to building a better microscope to drafting a text search tool for academic research papers. In 2003, he co-founded etexx Biopharmaceuticals Inc.

Dr. Garner, who joined UT Southwestern 11 years ago, said one of the roadblocks to commercialization is that most universities emphasize publishing papers and attracting grants, not creating products or launching businesses.

As a result, researchers who do want to test the commercial waters have to be captains, navigators and deckhands all at the same time.

"You have to find a management team," Dr. Garner said. "You have to find intelligent venture capital money in your domain. You've got to rent space. You've got to hire people, all those kinds of things."

While major research universities like Stanford and MIT are good at helping their researchers deal with those start-up issues, few schools have devoted those kinds of resources, Dr. Garner said.

"I have to say our university is probably one of the better ones at doing that, and that's a recent development," he said.

E-mail vgodinez@dallasnews.com