Ex-quarterback enlists Innovation Institute in sports tech startup venture
March 22, 2015 12:00 AM
Charlie Batch is shoring up an arrangement with Pitt’s Innovation Institute to develop and commercialize products for his emerging sports medicine technology startup, Impellia.
Charlie Batch talks with Andi Appono, left, and Bambang Parmanto, both of the University of Pittsburgh’s Health Information Management program at the university’s Innovation Institute.
Former Steeler Charlie Batch, right, Richard Walker, center, and Edward Kim worked together to form Impellia, a sports medicine startup that hopes to commecialize research from the University of Pittsburgh.
By Deborah M. Todd / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In Pittsburgh, where an emerging reputation for technology and small business is still miles behind an entrenched reputation as an unrepentant sports town, a partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and a former Steelers stalwart aims to bridge the gap.
Charlie Batch, retired Steelers quarterback and one of Homestead’s most celebrated native sons, is shoring up an arrangement with Pitt’s Innovation Institute to develop and commercialize products for his emerging sports medicine technology startup, Impellia.
Founded last year with former software executive Richard Walker and veteran health tech entrepreneurs Dave Morin and Ed Kim, Impellia began blossoming while Mr. Batch was still suiting up and taking hits on Sunday afternoons.
“I’ve been injured quite a few times throughout my career and have been introduced to some technologies we’ve had [in Pittsburgh],” he said.
After years of conversations with regional stakeholders — many of whom Mr. Batch met during a stint as a cohost on Pittsburgh Technology Council’s TechVibe Radio show — he began making formal moves last summer when technology council president Audrey Russo linked Impellia with the Innovation Institute.
By January, the Impellia team had agreed to option the license for three Pitt-created technologies — joint monitoring tool interACTION, electronic pivot shift testing tool PIVOT, and videoconferencing and electronic health database software Versatile and Integrated System for Telerehabilitation, or VISYTER.
Neither the university nor Impellia disclosed the financial terms of the arrangement.
Obvious National Football League ties aside, the Impellia team said they could see a market for each product extending from high school sports programs to hospitals and sports rehab clinics.
“Everyone deals with health issues, whether it’s a professional athlete suffering through injury needing to rehabilitate his knee or a grandma who just had her knee replaced at a hospital trying to get back to walking,” Mr. Walker said.
Even with what’s likely months of testing left before any of the products are seen in a hospital or on a sideline, Evan Facher, director of enterprise development for the Innovation Institute, said they are still light years ahead of other products simply because they have been optioned early on by investors with highly specific goals.
“Part of the goal for us from a university perspective is to find partners like these guys who want to pull the technology out and add that commercial flavor to it,” he said.
“It’s a new kind of environment at the university. We try to move things much further down that path so they are more close to being commercial ready. So when we do the handoff [to investors], it’s quicker time to market,” said Mr. Facher.
“That benefits everybody because the university gets some additional dollars back at the end of the day and we provide the investors a return on their investment much more quickly than they would get waiting for five or 10 years for this [technology] to eventually see the light.”
Road to the real world
The nontraditional approach of selling investors on yet-to-be-completed innovations could become the new normal at Pitt.
In 2013, the university combined its Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, Office of Technology Management and Office of Enterprise Development under the umbrella of the Innovation Institute, partially to boost the number of university innovations that make it to the commercial market.
With an assist from the Coulter Translational Research Partnership program — an initiative designed to fund research and commercialization of health care technologies created through a $3.54 million award from the Miami-based medical research and engineering fund Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, plus $1.5 million in matching funds from the School of Medicine — there are clear signs others see the financial incentive in fast-tracking the search for investors.
Not that getting research funding for university creations has been a problem for Pitt.
The university, which has been in the business of commercializing its innovations for only 18 years, ranks seventh nationally in federally financed research and development spending. In 2012 alone, the school spent approximately $637 million in federal research and development funding.
For Pitt to turn those research dollars into job-creating startups, connecting innovations with the entrepreneurs best suited to sell them at the conceptual stage could be the best bet.
“For the university to be successful in getting technologies out, what we have to do differently is bring these folks in earlier to the process,” Mr. Facher said.
“It may be that the tech won’t be ready for a year to license, but we need that feedback. We need these people around the table so around that time when we’re doing the handoff we have a willing partner and we’re not headhunting for someone who is interested in this specific thing,” he said.
Early in the game
Calling the approach “cutting edge and disruptive,” Mr. Kim, a 20-year tech veteran who is the CEO in residence at Michigan State University’s Spartan Innovations accelerator program, said the team was steered toward Pitt specifically because of the option for early entry.
A bonus, said Mr. Walker, is that meeting innovators during the creative process gives the Impellia team a chance to pitch ideas for technology that may not have been on anyone’s radar. “It’s a two-way street, and not every university is structured this way,” he said.
Equally unusual, according to both the Impellia team and Pitt officials, is the convergence of two groups with experience in both tech and entrepreneurship.
Mr. Facher, former CEO of Cleveland-based health care company SironRX Therapeutics, pointed out that all key players in the Innovation Institute working with Impellia have experience as CEOs of early-stage companies in addition to academic credentials.
On the Impellia side, Mr. Morin sold his patient management software startup, Cielo Medical Solutions, in 2010 for an undisclosed figure in a deal touted as a major success for Michigan’s Pre-Seed Capital Fund. In addition to Mr. Kim’s years of experience, he and Mr. Walker have formed Venture Factories, an investment company focused on commercializing research-based digital health care.
Beyond 15 years working in the NFL and heading the nonprofit Best of the Batch organization, Mr. Batch has taken NFL-sponsored continuing education programs focused on entrepreneurship and technology at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Stanford University, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and at Notre Dame.
Mr. Facher said he hopes the first three inventions are only the beginning for them.
“The goal is to keep this as a long-term relationship,” he said. “This may be three or four technologies, but our hope is it will become five and 10.”
Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette. com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.
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