At universities all over the world, early-stage research often just sits in the lab—and that’s a missed opportunity. In the Life Sciences field, promising technologies are sometimes abandoned long before they get a chance to really make an impact. This is because many innovations can take decades to transition from an interesting discovery into a powerful tool. Many scientists hope that the CRISPR story will be different. CRISPR has the potential to help us unlock the natural world by giving us the power to modify specific genes. This may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but thanks to the efforts of dedicated researchers around the world, it could soon be possible to target pathogenic microbes and correct disease causing mutations.
While the accelerating pace of medical research is encouraging, there are many problems yet to be solved. We need to create more precise diagnostic technologies, to address the globally rising incidence of lifestyle and chronic diseases, and to help reduce the $350 billion wasted each year on poorly-targeted medicines. These problems are not going away.
Luckily, the field of life sciences research is exploding with possibilities. Some of the most interesting technology in decades is starting to come out of university labs—technology that has the potential to become products that change the way we diagnose patients, develop drugs, and equip doctors with tools that help them save lives and improve patient outcomes.
“It’s an incredible time to be a scientist.”
Bridging the gap between the lab and the clinic is a tough job, but UT Southwestern Medical Center‘s Anna Benefiel welcomes the challenge of building the future of medicine.
Anna got her undergraduate degree from MIT, and later earned a masters in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins. She spent several years living in India, where she was inspired by how emerging technology can dramatically improve people’s quality of life. “When cell phones came to India, they were quickly adopted because they offered major advantages over landline systems that many people could not access,” she explained.
It is this passion for leveraging technology for the greater good that brought Anna to UT Southwestern, where she works with researchers to license their inventions so they can be used in clinical settings. Anna’s enthusiasm for the future of healthcare is infectious, and she uses her deep expertise to provide researchers with advice and resources so they can face the considerable challenge of making innovation scale. “In drug discovery work, there are always surprises and setbacks,” Anna explains, “The reality is that many new ventures in high-risk industries fail. There’s a wonderful Japanese expression that translates to ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight.’ This is what people entering the drug discovery space must learn—resilience in the face of unforeseen challenges.”
But when early-stage research makes it out of the lab, it can have profound impacts on the way we deliver healthcare. At UT Southwestern, decorated Cell Biologist Dr. Lawrence Lum and his team discovered a class of small, cancer-treating molecules that have the surprising ability to cause stem cells to turn into cardiomyocytes (heart cells). Using the IWR and IWP chemicals to simply and reproducibly create large batches of cardiomyocytes could have a huge impact on the way we design and test new drugs for many different conditions.
Developing new drugs and testing them for safety is incredibly costly and time-consuming. But, if drug developers can figure out that a certain drug is harmful to heart cells early on, and determine how exactly that drug is harmful, then the drug can be redesigned to remove this toxic effect. The ability to intervene early in the drug development process and fix major, hard-to-discover side effects could potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars in clinical trials. When you can test drugs against cardiomyocytes outside the human body, you also avoid the problem of introducing a potentially heart-harming drug into a patient.
The history of drug development speaks to the need for improved screening and testing of drug candidates. In the past, drugs have been pulled off the market due to unanticipated toxic effects. Often such an effect is only seen when the new drug is given to patients. However, drugs in advanced, multi-million-dollar clinical trials have also been found to have surprising harm to patient’s hearts. “Every drug has a risk-benefit ratio,” Anna says, “but if you can reduce any risks the drug poses, the drug becomes much more useful.”
Technologies like Dr. Lum’s IWR and IWP compounds which have potential to alter cell fate in cancer and regenerative medicine, and other early-stage innovations making their way out of labs around the world, will dramatically improve healthcare when successfully commercialized. But scientists know it’s a long road from the bench to the patient bedside. When founding her start-up Amino Labs, CEO Julie Legault found bringing her prototype to market a complex process. Her advice to other entrepreneurs? “Get as much feedback as you can from subject matter experts and potential customers early on so you really understand your market. And build resilience — you’ll often be thrown in unfamiliar territory, so you have to stay tough and learn quickly.”
Anna’s tips for researchers
2. Accessibly and fully explain your inventions.
Your commercialization team has to understand what you have invented in order to determine how best to proceed.
3. Have realistic expectations.
Not all inventions make money and most projects move slowly towards commercialization. Do not expect miracles even when you have invented something that is miraculous. Great science is not always a great product and vice versa.
4. Understand what “products” could be made from your discovery.
Know how your discovery becomes something that can be sold. Determine what competes with your eventual product and understand how your offering is better.
5. Be reasonably accessible to your technology commercialization office.
Technology commercialization offices need to hear from you when there is a patent filing or response deadline. Be responsive and develop a trusting relationship.
6. Build real relationships with industry and stay networked.
People who believe in your science will champion it, wherever they are. Maintain your relationships with people inside and outside academia. Connections can be incredibly valuable.
7. Be brave enough to ask “dumb” questions, build resilience.
Egos get in the way of progress. If you have a question, ask it. Your technology commercialization office is there to be helpful. Honest discourse saves time, and great projects sometimes fail. Incorporate lessons learned into your next project and stay focused on making the best play with the cards dealt.
8. Follow the rules of the road and avoid drama.
Understand your institutional rules on conflict of interest, outside employment, appropriate material sharing, and other policies that touch upon commercialization. Follow the rules and ask for help if you are concerned about compliance. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to resolving drama.
9. Appreciate your team
Very few inventions involve only one inventor. Be fair to, and honest with, your co-inventors. If a license gets done, celebrate your team and show appreciation to all who helped you get there. Appreciating the people who are on your team builds the political capital you need to weather inevitable storms along the way to commercialization.
10. Keep in touch.
A license is in some ways a living document and will likely change over time via amendments. Check in periodically and keep the lines of communication open.
Navigating the licensing process
In most cases, it’s helpful for researchers to work with a partner to navigate the complex process of bringing research and prototypes to market. Licensing can be a fantastic way to bring research out of the lab because it allows researchers to focus on the science and potentially move on to another project. Sian Godwin, GE Healthcare’s Head of Licensing, explains how she works with scientists in this helpful video. Every company has a different process, but the way GE licenses technologies is pretty simple:
On an ongoing basis, GE accepts proposals from researchers. Researchers can either contact GE’s Licensing team directly or get a referral through their university Technology Transfer Offices. Researchers can propose everything from early stage research to more mature industrial prototypes. When the Licensing team works with researchers, they provide constructive, useful feedback throughout the process—the team wants to help researchers get to the next step, even if the technology is not yet ready for licensing. The most important information for any researcher to communicate is not how the technology works but what problem the technology solves.
Once the Licensing team has a chance to review the technology internally and communicate any feedback to the researchers, the licensing proposal is submitted for formal review by a committee. This committee evaluates both the technology and business potential of any future products based on the technology. Throughout the evaluation process, the Licensing team works to better understand the goals and motivations of researchers so they can set up a collaborative relationship that is ideal for everyone involved.
What happens next?
GE believes innovation requires thinking beyond ‘one-size-fits-all’ partnerships. While GE does make traditional licensing deals and pursue technology acquisition, they also work flexibly to offer opportunities that match the specific needs of a potential partnership.
For example, if a technology is at a very early stage, GE’s internal life sciences R&D team can collaborate with researchers to develop it further. Or, if the research team has a startup of their own, they can also pursue investment through GE Ventures’ Healthymagination program, or through the newly created Life Sciences Innovation Fund.