Missoula research firms land grants, chase prospects of commercial sales

Inimmune technicians conduct their vaccine research in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A $130,000 state grant has enabled a Missoula biotech firm to hire a new research chemist and move forward with the development of a drug to protect travelers and military troops, among others, against respiratory infections.

The nine research grants totaling $862,000 were announced last week by the Montana Department of Commerce. Two of the awards went to research projects in Missoula, including Inimmune, where chemists are working to develop new drugs to treat cancer, allergies and now, safeguards against respiratory infections.

“It’s enough to help us establish intellectual property in the area,” said Jay Evans, president and CEO of Inimmune. “It will help us sustain an early discovery program here at Inimmune, and it will allow us to hire a full-time chemist to discover new compounds. It brings new jobs to Missoula.”

Evans on Monday said the firm, based at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center in Missoula, has already hired a new chemist to develop a compound aimed at protecting the consumer against infectious respiratory diseases, such as influenza.

If successfully developed through several trial phases, Evans said, the product could have a wide number of applications, from protecting military troops against disease while deployed overseas to guarding others against a flu pandemic.

“You can imagine, any kind of upper respiratory tract infection where you might be exposed to something, it gives you that few-week window of protection, including if you’re just traveling and don’t want to get sick,” Evans said. “This particular grant is to develop new chemical entities around that application. It will help us develop a brand new intellectual property portfolio.”

Dave Desch, executive director of the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization, said the funding supports economic development by investing in research projects that have a clear path to commercialization.

Since 2001, according to the Montana Department of Commerce, the board has awarded nearly $43 million to 234 research projects, which in turn have attracted $369 million in additional investment, known as follow-on funding.

“It’s really an economic development effort,” said Desch. “What we’re trying to do is increase economic activity, particularly tech-based activity. If we fund a company and their product or service is marketed, it’s good for them and it’s good for the state.”

Along with Inimmune, the board also awarded $140,000 in funding to a Missoula-based research team looking to diagnose brain injuries using biomarkers. That effort is headed by Sarjubhai Patel at the University of Montana and includes the company’s FYR Diagnostics and LLC/VAST Learning Solutions.

While Patel couldn’t be reached Monday for comment, Desch described the work as an advancement in diagnosing and someday treating traumatic brain injuries, including those caused by concussions or battlefield blasts.

“What this is doing, it’s taking that technology and combining it or linking it with another diagnostic tool,” Desch said. “Between the two, they think they have the potential to really change and improve the diagnosis of brain injury and be able to objectively evaluate the injury and how it’s changing over time.”

According to a recent study by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, Desch’s branch of state government has helped produce a more prosperous state economy that would not have occurred without its grant assistance.

Nearly 350 jobs have been created with personal income exceeding $22 million annually. While matching funds are required for a successful grant application, the grant itself also helps researchers attract additional funding.

“We’ve seen nearly $370 million in follow-on funding for projects the board has funded,” said Desch. “We want to fund projects that have a commercial application.”