Research Commercialization: ZeoVation
Profile: Dr. Prabir Dutta, The Ohio State University
Co-founder of ZeoVation
Dr. Prabir Dutta wears many hats: professor, scientist, author, inventor – and entrepreneur.
Dr. Dutta taught for many years at The Ohio State University as a Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He is an author of hundreds of scholarly works and has been a mentor for more than 100 postdoctoral and graduate students. He is a well-known researcher in the field of nanotechnology as well as a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and National Academy of Inventors.
More than a decade ago, Dr. Dutta began wondering if his research had commercial value. He worked extensively with Ohio State’s Technology Commercialization Office (TCO) to license his inventions and now owns 30 patents. Some made to a product stage; others did not. In the process he discovered how difficult it is to bring an idea to the marketplace.
“I thought it would be easy to sell a product,” Dutta says. “But ultimately industry wants something they can market.”
In 2017, Professor Dutta and his graduate student Bo Wang founded ZeoVation, an advanced materials company based on their research in nanoparticles. ZeoVation offers a controlled release, “smart” particle technology to make products cleaner, safer and more effective by preventing problems and damaging effects before they start. The two co-founders saw applications in the coatings, health care, polymers and plastics, textiles and sun protection markets.
But to build and grow a company, many things need to happen apart from a great idea based on leading-edge research. Dutta and Wang needed funding to get ZeoVation off the ground. And they needed to learn how to run a business – R&D, manufacturing, human resources, logistics, marketing.
“It’s a very complicated process,” Dr. Dutta says. “I found it’s much easier to license technology than to build a company.”
The initial $100,000 funding came through the state of Ohio’s Third Frontier Technology Validation and Start-up Fund (TVSF). Dr. Wang had taken a class in entrepreneurship and consequently applied to Rev1 Ventures’ Customer Learning Lab in Columbus, a Third Frontier Entrepreneurial Services Provider. ZeoVation was accepted as a client.
Rev1 professionals helped the company raise seed funding and develop a business plan. They also offered a large legal and financial network and ties with the start-up community in the region. Plus, Rev1 provided physical space for the company’s business operations.
“Rev1 helped us form the company, understand the legal system, work on marketing and manufacturing issues and find venture capital. They have been a sounding board for our ideas,” he says. “Rev1 filled that intermediate gap between developing the technology and building a successful business.”
ZeoVation has recently been awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II funding for $1,000,000 (it had earlier received a $225,000 Phase I grant), and is in the final stages of negotiation for a $1,000,000 Department of Defense grant. These new funds will help the company complete R&D on an antimicrobial and antiviral agent to combat the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19.
Bo Wang now serves as CEO of ZeoVation; Prabir Dutta is the CTO, focusing on innovation and technology. It’s a role he enjoys. Along with Joint Development Agreements with several companies, ZeoVation is also working in the additive manufacturing and polymer space. ZeoVation’s sponsors, collaborators and partners include the National Science Foundation, Eastern Kentucky University, Hazard Community and Technical College, Ohio State University, George Mason University, METSS Corp. and 59th Lackland US Air Force. Customers include Exxon, P&G, Hitachi Chemical, Viscus Biologics, Nanjing Kezhan LLC and many universities.
Dr. Dutta acknowledges that it’s difficult to take research from the university lab to the ultimate customer. He believes universities should do more to teach business skills to faculty who are interested in commercializing their research. But he is optimistic about the future of the company and credits three local institutions for their success thus far.
“Ohio State University provided the facilities for the R&D, Prof James Waldman from the Wexner Medical Center is a key collaborator and TCO is an important partner. The State of Ohio’s Third Frontier TVSF offered the initial funding to move us to a ‘middle company’ status where we had something to say to prospective investors. Rev1 helped us set the right goals and provided the logistical and business support,” he says.