What is… a translational research institute?
September 10, 2021

I will be the first to admit that I began working at a translational research institute (TRI) without any prior knowledge of translational research.

As I’ve settled into my position, I’ve learned the basic principles through my work. But for my own sake, I wanted to deep-dive into what translational research really is, and how TRIs like UNeTech pave the way for new technology to enter the community.

What is translational research?

Unfortunately, a simple Google search could not define translational research for me. Information on the method is often hidden within thousands of words of medical terminology, and many of the cohesive definitions I did find differed from one another. The term came to popular use in academic journals beginning in the early 2000’s, most of which only anecdotally mention the term.

As translational research became more popular and more university-supported centers began popping up, a clearer definition was established. On a high level, translational research is simply the process of moving an innovation from its conceptual stages into the community and/or onto the market. Early-stage products or concepts that have potential real-world applications but need fine-tuning or institutional support are ideal candidates for this type of research.

Translational research is most often applied to innovations in healthcare and biotechnology. For startups working to break into these industries, developmental and regulatory requirements are time-consuming and expensive. The funding and mentorship provided by university-supported startup incubators can help get projects off the ground.

Jacob Johnson, founder of innovation firm Innovosource

Still, translational research of research is not restricted to specific fields. Jacob Johnson, founder of innovation firm Innovosource, has worked in translational research and gap funding for over 11 years. His work has shown him that the research process has far-reaching applications outside of the scientific world.

“Often translational research is understood in relation to biotech, pharma, or medical technology,” Johnson explains. “In reality, translational research is more of a focused effort addressing any technology or startup that needs support and clarity as it moves from basic to a defined application.”

This variety is seen in UNeTech’s portfolio. Not only do we support medical startups like Precision Syringe and Global Laparoscopic Solutions (GLS), but also software companies like BreezMed and lifestyle products such as Full Fill Lashes.

What is a translational research institute (TRI)?

TRIs are institutions typically affiliated with a college or university which provide an array of services to startups or entrepreneurs in any number of fields. As Johnson noted, some technologies or startups need support and mentorship as they become a defined product—and TRIs can provide the space and services for promising ideas to progress.

“Translational research institutes can bring to bear funding, development, support, facilities, talent, and corporate and investment partnerships that are targeted to the specific needs of startups in that space,” he said.

In essence, TRIs exist to help entrepreneurs and innovators with promising ideas in whichever ways they need. Services offered vary by institute, but many include grant funding opportunities, investment and community partnerships, access to technology, and a physical space to work out of.

TRIs are often called startup incubators or accelerators, depending on what stage companies are at when they enter the program. Accelerators help existing (but still early-stage) companies scale, while incubators help companies grow from concept to reality. UNeTech mostly operates as an incubator, though we do offer resources and mentorship for companies looking to grow.

For Joe Runge, the associate director at UNeTech, the value of this space is hard to quantify.

“There are a lot of inventors who have ideas but can’t make them,” he says. “For us, that’s typically clinicians—doctors, nurses, allied health professionals. They may know that some piece of equipment or kit that they have doesn’t work the way that they want it to, they know what needs to be changed, but that’s it. With UNeTech, we have built up a capability to get them to engage with engineers, design their invention, and test it.”

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