But, as our world was soon thrust into a COVID-19 tailspin just weeks before the center’s official grand opening, their plans were forced to change. Research labs quickly began to shut down in heed of the government’s safety protocols, slowing Truskett’s and Jennings’ original portfolio of clients.

“When you’re designing a product in response to a very real global need, it’s not just about research anymore. It’s about transitioning that research into a product as fast as possible.

—Van Truskett

However, the global pandemic didn’t stop this team from answering their new call to action. It became immediately clear: the Texas Innovation Center was perfectly positioned to respond to the urgent needs of the pandemic, and Truskett and Jennings quickly pivoted their focus to COVID-19 response projects, a testament to their agility and startup mentality.

One of those projects was the ABBU, or the Automated Bag Breathing Unit, a low-cost ventilator designed by Cockrell School professor Tom Milner that could be deployed to solve a critical global need. The team totaled 22 researchers, engineers, clinicians and physicians, including members from Dell Medical School and UT Health San Antonio. Truskett worked to connect them with funding resources and manufacturers and push the product through the regulatory approval process.

ABBU Breathing Unit
The ABBU (Automated Bag Breathing Unit) went from a concept to a functioning system submitted for FDA approval in a matter of weeks.

“It was amazing to see our engineering students and faculty work in a space they had never operated in before,” Truskett said. “When you’re designing a product in response to a very real global need, it’s not just about research anymore. It’s about transitioning that research into a product as fast as possible. UT doesn’t typically make products, so this is setting a new standard for commercialization of academic research in a truly monumental way.”

“There’s a sense of helplessness when you first hear of the need,” Jennings added. “But being able to have a purpose where we are making a difference and somehow combatting against this disease is uplifting. It’s a privilege to have these resources at the ready when the world needs them most.”

And these “at-the-ready” resources are extensive. Partnering with UT’s College of Natural Sciences and the Office of Technology Commercialization, along with industry-leading investors, the Texas Innovation Center provides entrepreneurs with a comprehensive one-stop shop of tools and support that helps them grow their ideas into businesses. The center’s collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach builds upon that of the founding director, Bob Metcalfe, whose original vision was to create a centralized place where UT students and faculty could develop startups.

As Metcalfe has shifted to lead other priorities in the Cockrell School, the two women innovators who are now leading the center are planning big things for the future. And among them is a goal to inspire diversity in the technology and startup space.

“Diversity and inclusion are topics that are important to me on a personal level and on a professional level,” Truskett said. “We don’t see enough of it in the startup world, and that population is even smaller in the university startup world. Ashley and I are dedicated to cultivating an ecosystem where everybody feels empowered, regardless of their background.”

“It’s a thread that’s woven throughout the DNA of the center,” Jennings added. “We want to make sure that everybody has a seat at our table, and we actively work to pursue a diverse portfolio. Entrepreneurs need to walk into our space and see themselves there. It needs to be a safe place for ideas to blossom.”

Fireside Chat with Innovation Center
The Texas Innovation Center hosts commercialization events throughout the year, such as this Fireside Chat from early spring 2020.

As Truskett and Jennings looks to the future, they will continue to seek opportunities to launch companies and develop products that influence society, whether in the midst of a global pandemic or not. Ultimately, their impact will be measured by the number of companies and products they are able to successfully launch out of UT and push into the market, in turn creating jobs, supporting families and changing lives.

“As we help our founders and companies tell their stories, I can’t wait to continue telling our story here in the Texas Innovation Center,” Jennings said. “This is only the beginning — we’re just getting started.”