A dive into the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) and its funding programs with GRA VP of Venture Development Ashley Cornelison

In the first of this short series on medtech innovation funding opportunities, GCMI Director of Scientific Affairs Evan Goldberg stated, “GRA is the first place to go for those trying to commercialize a technology out of an academic setting. Awards of $50,000 are available for projects or technologies in the very earliest stages GRA describes as ‘Phase 1.’ A significant percentage of applicants for those funds successfully access them.”


Given this, and given GRA matching funds for technologies earning “external validation” up to $100,000, we felt a discussion with GRA’s Vice President of Venture Development Ashley Cornelison would be a good next piece to share.


First things first: at what stage should faculty, researchers or investigators within the university system, Georgia Tech included, reach out to GRA for prospective funding for commercialization activities? Put another way, what should they bring to the table to increase the likelihood of a successful funding request?


Ashley Cornelison, Vice President, Venture Development, GRA

“Ideally the faculty member, researcher or investigator will have already filed an invention disclosure with their university’s licensing or tech transfer office,” Ashley told us. “Our grants are designed to achieve meaningful milestones on the right commercialization pathway, not fund basic research. We would also expect the innovator has some initial proof of concept data to show and share.


“For new therapeutic or drug candidates, we would expect some early, in-vitro test results that indicate positive potential. On the device side, we may fund proof-of-concept activities, but we would expect to see a design or prototype, before making the grant.


“Generally speaking, the more data an applicant can bring, the better. Resources for new medical technologies are scarce enough. We don’t want to fund ideas believed to be truly novel, only to have them die due to lack of awareness of existing IP or lack of available freedom to operate.


“We’d also like to see baseline market potential including the competitive landscape if possible, in which we can have some confidence, an invention disclosure filed and proof of concept data. These are all elements that make a well-developed proposal for us.


“We are industry agnostic, but for new medical technologies we understand our earliest grants and investments might involve more robust market assessment, clinical needs assessments and investigation beyond a patent for prior arts and freedom to operate.” 


Venture Lab – GRA’s “Boots on the Ground” for GT Technologies with Commercial Potential

Founded in 2001, Ashley describes Georgia Tech Venture Lab as GRA’s “boots on the ground” for identifying new technologies, including medical technologies, with commercial potential within the Institute.


Since its inception, Venture Lab has “…supported the launch of hundreds of startups which, combined, have raised over $1.5B in investments. A recent study ranked VentureLab #2 worldwide among university startup incubation and support programs. The team is comprised of engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators with decades of experience in a wide range of industries and startups.”


If the team is satisfied with the overall risk mitigation, proof of concept, market examination and value proposition from phase one funding activities, most technologies receiving phase one GRA grants receive phase two funding with matching funds commonly from SBIR and STTR.


GRA phase three funds are typically loans for corporate startup activities including, but not limited to, manufacturing scale up activities with an expectation of licensing agreements to practice the technology external to the university environment, commonly some existing customers and purchase orders.


“Because our overarching mission is to help launch new companies that create meaningful numbers of jobs and follow on investment in the state, we need to know, ‘Is there a large enough market to support a particular company?’ We need to have a measure of confidence that the technology has potential to become a stand-alone company, one with high potential to stay in Georgia, create jobs and attract further investment.


“We are always open for faculty to contact us directly, but Venture Lab has a simple two page pre-proposal process that’s a fantastic place to start,” Ashley said.


In 2008, Jim Ross co-founded what would become Axion Biosystems while a student at Georgia Tech. GRA provided its initial feasibility funding before following on with additional loan and venture funding as well.


The Outcomes GRA Seeks from Its Investments in Innovation, Including Medtech and the Life Sciences

Tommi Unkari, Partner, Summa Equity (credit: summaequity.com)

From Axion’s newsroom, “In July 2021, Summa Equity Fund II acquired a majority stake in the company. Launched out of Georgia Tech 13 years ago, Axion develops advanced technology to monitor activity inside human cells — an essential step in developing new cell and gene therapies and understanding drug safety. “Axion BioSystems impressed us with its market-leading, highly competitive and scalable technology…enabling faster, more accurate and more cost-efficient drug discovery, development and quality control,” says Summa Equity partner Tommi Unkuri. With the acquisition, Axion will scale capacity, expand its market reach and add to its 60-employee team in Georgia. GRA and GRA Venture Fund have invested in Axion over the years.” • Read about the acquisition >Check out a short feature on Axion


Akesogen, MedShape and Velocity Medical are also highly visible examples of commercially successful medical technologies spun out of the university systems helped along by GRA. After acquiring Velocity Medical, Varian made Atlanta its east coast hub.


“That is exactly the kind of outcome we strive to achieve with our grant funding and follow on investments,” Ashley said.


When asked what else she would like to share with the Georgia Tech and GCMI faculty and researcher medtech ecosystem, Ashley said, “We are a friendly source of capital for faculty members with interesting technologies and commercialization opportunities, even if that’s in early discovery in some cases. This is part of our mission, to help propel university research into the market. While there are many different flavors of funding in the medtech startup realm, including venture capital, we are about advancing university technologies and IP into growth stage Georgia companies.


Related: “Basement to bench to bedside.” Checkout GRA’s feature on GCMI supported innovator Wilbur Lam.

Wilbur Lam, GCMI Board, GT BME Professor and Academic Entrepreneur


Get In Touch: It’s Never Too Early

If you are a Georgia Tech faculty member, researcher or investigator with a technology you believe can address an unmet clinical care need it’s never too early to get in touch. We can help unlock funding opportunities that give your very early stage idea or technology its best chance to reach its full potential.

At Venture Lab: jon.goldman@venturelab.gatech.edu 

At GRA: acornelison@gra.org 

At GCMI: evan.goldberg@t3labs.org 


About GRA

The Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) helps Georgia’s university scientists do more research and start more companies. By expanding research and entrepreneurship capacity at public and private universities, GRA grows the Georgia economy by driving more investment in the state; developing a high-tech workforce; and strengthening Georgia’s reputation for innovation.

For 33 years, GRA has worked in partnership with the University System of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Economic Development to create the companies and jobs of Georgia’s future. Visit GRA.org for more information.