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From Grad School to Startup
While working toward advanced degrees, UA graduate students are producing new knowledge and products and forming companies that address significant challenges facing our state, nation and world.
These dedicated students engage in groundbreaking research, scholarship and outreach that often begins to have a real impact before they've even left the UA. When they graduate with their advanced degrees in hand, they are poised to continue making a difference in the way we think about everything from science to business and more.
After graduating, some of these students will continue to work in academia, while others will go into industry or choose to serve their communities in different ways, like joining the Peace Corps. The UA is consistently among the nation's top producers of Peace Corps volunteers.
Other alums will start businesses of their own, often with support from UA resources, such as the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship in the Eller College of Management or through Tech Launch Arizona, the UA's technology commercialization arm.
"These are smart people with great ideas, and they've worked really hard," said Zachary Brooks, president of the UA Graduate and Professional Student Council and a Tech Launch Arizona ambassador.
Brooks, a doctoral candidate in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching program, founded the UA's Research and Projects Grants program, or ReaP, to support graduate student work on campus. As a TLA ambassador, he helps to connect UA students with University resources to bring their ideas to market.
"Our goal is to help these students start businesses and stay in Arizona and in Tucson," he said.
Here we highlight just a few of the many innovators and entrepreneurs who have gone on to do just that after earning advanced degrees from the UA.
GlycoSurf, a chemical company that makes greener ingredients for use in household cleaners, cosmetics and other products, was started by Cliff Coss, who earned his doctorate in chemistry from the UA in 2012, and two UA faculty members – Jeanne Pemberton in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Raina Maier in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science.
The company was born out of collaborative research Coss did in the lab as a graduate student. Coss, who had little prior business experience, said Tech Launch Arizona helped guide him through the process of commercializing his work.
"They've really disrupted my comfort zone, which has been good for me," said Coss, who now works as GlycoSurf's chief technology officer in addition to working as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "It's using a completely different side of the brain."
Now in addition to working in the lab, Coss is involved in market research, networking and other aspects of running a business. In March, he and his faculty partners were honored with a Catapult Award for Chemistry & Physical Sciences from Tech Launch Arizona for their success in moving scientific innovation from the lab to the marketplace.
Grafted Growers, which was launched last summer, specializes in the indoor production of grafted vegetable plants – traditional vegetable plants grafted to a disease-resistant root stalk – for sale to home gardeners and commercial growers.
Two of the founding members of Grafted Growers remain with the company – John Jackson, CEO and an Eller MBA recipient, and Ricardo Hernández Moreno, who earned a doctorate from the UA School of Plant Sciences and now serves as Grafted Growers' chief operating officer.
The McGuire Center brings together entrepreneurial students from varying disciplines to foster the development of businesses in different fields.
"The program is outstanding," Jackson said. "The support that we got was amazing, and the most valuable thing we got was the critical thinking aspect."
Grafted Growers now sells its plants to commercial growers and through local retailers, and has a national distribution deal in the works.
Rui Zhang, who earned his doctorate in computer science from the UA in 2012, co-founded DataWare Ventures with his two thesis advisers – Saumya Debray and Richard Snodgrass, both professors in the Department of Computer Science.
Based on microspecialization technology derived from Zhang's thesis research, the software company aims to help the database industry achieve greater efficiency.
"We saw great value in making this technology available to the entire industry," said Zhang, who now works full time as DataWare Ventures' chief scientific officer, supervising research and development activities and coordinating product development.
Zhang said he never expected that an idea jotted on paper would turn into a commercialization opportunity, but it became possible by working with Tech Launch Arizona.
In March, the DataWare Ventures Team was awarded Tech Launch Arizona's Catapult Award for Information Technology.