Tucson’s robust technology scene is fueled by innovative collaborations

Metfora CEO Martin Fuchs founded his tech startup with two UA professors. “The university has really been very proactive in setting up the right kind of support to help faculty-generated research get to market and license.” (Metfora/Submitted)

Monti Leija never set out to become a tech entrepreneur.

Growing up in Glendale, Leija joined the Army to become a combat medic, and quickly ascended up the ranks to being selected first to the 82nd Airborne and then to the elite Special Forces unit.

It was while serving combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan that Leija saw a vital need to transport properly refrigerated blood to the battlefield, so that injured soldiers wouldn’t have to be airlifted to an Army hospital to receive a life-saving infusion.

“In Iraq, I was part of a research team in 2007 that was trying to figure out how to bring blood to the point of injury,” Leija said, “and it was really difficult, logistically, at that time to do that.”

The problem was that nobody had come up with a way to make a portable refrigeration unit small and reliable enough to be carried onsite while keeping the blood at a consistent temperature between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius. “I had to tell them, ‘Hey, it’s not possible.’”

Fast-forward to 2018, when University of Arizona mechanical engineering grads Bill Barg and Robert Futch were approached by the military to work on just such a project. By that time, Leija was retired from the Army and working on his undergraduate degree at UA.

“It was really just a lucky coincidence,” Leija said.

“They started doing some searching, found me on LinkedIn, and they’re like, ‘Hey, there’s this military guy that lives in Tucson. He’s got a lot of medical experience. Why don’t we have him come over and talk with us?’”

Leija, Barg and Futch began collaborating and developed a refrigerator roughly the size of a fishing tackle box they called the Autonomous Portable Refrigeration Unit, or APRU. Made to run for days on one battery charge and withstand harsh weather conditions, the invention garnered a grant from the U.S. Air Force that allowed the team to manufacture it and develop similar units for disaster relief and emergency medical services. Today their Tucson-based tech startup, Delta Development Team Inc., is among a handful of finalists in the 2023 Venture Madness Competition put on by Invest Southwest.

That kind of serendipitous merging of minds is what fuels the Tucson tech scene, said Carol Stewart, vice president of UA’s Tech Parks Arizona.

“Industry clusters and technology-oriented companies thrive here because of the research expertise and business support organizations,” she said.

Stewart notes that many of the over 750 member companies in the Arizona Tech Council have grown partnerships with the UA, which has established leading research centers in fields such as astronomy and astrophysics, water resource management, space and defense, mining technology, optical science and especially biotechnology, the field that makes up 44% of the startups incubated at The University of Arizona Center for Innovation (UACI).

“We are noticing that businesses in these areas are looking to partner with the UArizona research expertise to continue innovating,” Stewart said. “Since establishing the UACI in 2003, the startup activity has risen like a hockey stick over the past few years.”

Martin Fuchs can attest to that. The MIT- and Harvard-educated engineer and inventor lived for decades in Boston before moving to Tucson in 2017. He partnered with two professors at UA to develop a blood test that uses metabolites in the blood, combined with artificial intelligence, to quickly identify diseases like chronic lung, heart disorders and cancers in their early stages that would otherwise take an average of two to four years to properly diagnose using traditional methods. Fuchs’ company, MetFora, recently received a $255,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand its pioneering diagnostic technology.

“The university has really been very proactive in setting up the right kind of support to help faculty-generated research get to market and license,” he said. “They have Tech Launch Arizona, which is quite active. They have the UACI, which houses and guides startups coming from the university. And then they have Arizona FORGE (Finding Opportunities and Resources to Grow Entrepreneurs), which is another group of folks that work with students as well as faculty members to bring stuff out into commercialization.”

Fuchs likes the more relaxed vibe of the Tucson tech community. “It’s kind of low stress, right?” he said. “It’s not Boston, it’s not San Francisco. It’s more low key. Plus, you’ve got the exotic Sonoran Desert around you and the 345 days of sunshine every year, which doesn’t hurt either.” The relatively lower cost of living also makes the city attractive to young tech professionals.

“You can tap into a rich talent pool.”

The Tucson tech scene also tends to foster more important work than the latest social media app or AI chatbox. Take Reglagene, a Tucson startup developing a new oral brain cancer therapy that targets the DNA structures in cancer that regulate gene activity, allowing the medication to bypass the body’s blood-brain barrier that normally prevents medicines from entering the brain. The medication stems from a collaboration between UArizona medicinal chemistry professor Laurence Hurley, researcher Vijay Gokhale and pharmaceutical industry vet Richard Austin.

“Tech Launch Arizona was certainly instrumental in getting us off the ground,” said Austin. “Because even though I know the pharmaceutical R&D business, how you actually start a company was something new for me, and so helping me find those right people, and introducing me to service providers like attorneys and accountants to set up a real business, was really helpful. Being a booster for our company, and giving us investors to pitch to and get our name out there really helped to get us rolling.”

Stewart said that support system for the Tucson technology industry is only expected to grow this year.

“We opened our long-anticipated University of Arizona Tech Park at The Bridges campus, located on Kino Parkway and Interstate 10,” she said.

“The first building, known as The Refinery, opened in late January 2022.”

The Refinery’s four-story, 120,000-square-foot space is shared equally by UA programs and outside businesses wanting to work closely with the university, Stewart added.

Promising new companies like Eurofins CellTx, which provides lab services to meet the unique testing and processing needs of the transplant community, and Applied Energetics, which makes high-performance lasers, advanced optical systems and integrated guided energy systems for defense and aerospace, are among the latest companies to emerge from the ecosystem.

“It serves as a commercialization hub anchored by UArizona providing the ideal platform for technology advancements and business growth,” Stewart said.

Austin puts it another way, speaking for many of the successful tech startups coming out of Tucson today.

“It’s a fun time to be us.”