knowledge economy

“Mercules”

Love Sarin displays a nanoselenium-enriched cloth (foreground) that captures mercury vapor. His new company is marketing products that use the technology to make the disposal of energy-saving compact fluorescent lightbulbs safer.

Credit: John Abromowski / Brown University

Green – and growing

Providence-based Banyan Environmental Inc. is bringing mercury-absorbent technology from the lab to the marketplace in partnership with Brown’s Technology Ventures Office.

By Richard C. Lewis  |  February 25, 2010  |  Email to a friend

In the summer of 2008, Love Sarin ’05 ScM was a graduate student and part of a Brown research team that came up with an innovative way to contain potentially hazardous mercury fumes from broken compact fluorescent lightbulbs. The team’s work was written up in the New York Times. Now he’s the president and chief executive officer of a company that aims to capitalize on that discovery with a commercial product. “This is my first job,” Sarin says with a grin.

The company, Banyan Environmental Inc., was incorporated last fall, but its coming-out party will take place on March 3. A reception sponsored by Brown’s Technology Ventures Office (TVO) will bring prospective investors and others to learn more about the firm and its mercury-absorption product, which the principals have dubbed “Mercules.” The startup’s chief scientific advisor is Sarin’s faculty mentor, Professor of Engineering Robert Hurt, director of Brown’s Institute of Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation.

The Banyan reception is just one of many ways the University is lending a hand to new companies and sowing seeds for job creation in Rhode Island, one of the states hardest hit by the recession. Besides orchestrating gatherings with potential investors, Brown’s research and technology offices work out licensing agreements, offer patent protection and advice, and provide strategic planning to help companies get started and grow.

“The Brown community is very entrepreneurial,” says Katherine Gordon, who heads the TVO. “We’re hoping to add the impetus that keeps companies going and the additional leverage for them to get more funding.” Gordon says her office is working with at least three other embryonic startups that she expects will be spun out of research at Brown in the coming year.

In the case of Banyan, the University agreed to license the mercury-absorbent technology in return for royalties and an equity stake. Under this arrangement, Brown owns the technology “and … is giving us the exclusive worldwide license to commercialize it,” Sarin says.

Brown has struck similar arrangements with other new firms, such as Dynadec, a Providence-based company spun out of research in the computer science department. Pascal Van Hentenryck, professor of computer science and Dynadec’s founder, says Brown agreed in 2008 to license his signature product, a software platform called Comet that allows businesses to respond quickly and more intelligently to disruptions and unforeseen contingencies. He said negotiations went smoothly over the license terms, which were revised last January. “They understand the needs that we have, and they try to meet them,” Van Hentenryck says. “They see it as a joint venture.”

Van Hentenryck’s startup is attracting outside interest. Last month the state-backed venture capital group Slater Technology Fund announced it would commit $350,000 to Dynadec.

Gordon: Helping entrepreneurs: Gordon: Helping entrepreneurs Gordon knows how important it is for universities to take active roles in finding marketable ideas in their research labs and helping to commercialize them. Before coming to Brown last year, she was director of business development at Harvard University’s Office of Technology Development, where she developed and marketed technologies in the life sciences. She also has entrepreneurial bona fides: In 1993 she founded and ran a startup, Apollo BioPharmaceutics, focused on the discovery and development of neuroprotective agents. The firm subsequently merged with a biotechnology company.

Beyond helping get its own researchers’ best ideas to market, the University also is a partner in the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, launched last spring to help small businesses get started.