While most conversations on entrepreneurship at the University generally center on the undergraduate experience, the resources devoted to developing research and science into marketable projects and companies also cater to faculty and post-graduates.
The Medical School’s body of incubation and acceleration, Fast Forward Medical Innovation, was established at the end of 2013 and has since given doctors and engineers the opportunity to expand their lab work into the business world.
A division of the school’s Office of Research, the organization offers seminars in commercialization education, provides connections with external business partners and even facilitates an “innovation navigator,” providing mentoring and funding to fledgling products through additional programs like the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization for Life Sciences Program.
FFMI Managing Director Connie Chang and Executive Director Kevin Ward said FFMI’s purpose is to serve as a leader in biomedical innovation and commercialization.
“No one would debate that the Medical School — and the health system at the University for that matter — is a research powerhouse, so we get a really large number of federal investments,” Ward said. “And you see innovation centers that are popping up all over the country, and I think that’s recognition that innovation is as much about the process of getting the idea out to impact, or to market, as it is about the idea itself.”
Connecting the idea with potential commercial applications can sometimes be difficult, Chang said. So the goal is to be a business collaborator.
“Imagine you’re a busy faculty member seeing patients, doing research,” she said. “You don’t care where the funding comes from. You come through our front door, we’re going to help you with funding, perhaps, or if you’re not ready for that, maybe we’re going to help you with coaching and mentoring to further play out your ideas.”
It is for this reason that what Chang calls the “lion’s share” of FFMI’s funding goes toward projects early in their concept stages, and this is perhaps most evident in that the UM MTRAC budget allocates roughly $7.5 million over the course of three years.
During its first round last year, the life sciences-oriented MTRAC drew 40 applicants and ultimately funded 11 projects, helping each other to consider important business practices by creating quarterly milestones for accomplishment.
One of these winning projects was the joint work of University Profs. Mark S. Cohen, M.D., and Anna Schwendeman, Ph.D., who worked together to develop a targeted therapy drug that would treat adrenal cancers.
Cohen said the hope is to ultimately create a spinoff company that produces the drug and lead to its administration in a clinical setting. This, however, will require a great deal of testing and commercialization — which is where FFMI comes into play.
Through MTRAC, Cohen and Schwendeman were awarded approximately $188,000 in funding. With these resources, and guided by MTRAC mentoring, the duo have filed a patent for their product, and have completed pre-clinical studies validating both that the drug is up to Federal Drug Administration standards and that the technology for administering the drug meets safety and efficacy standards.
Cohen added that the goal in coming months is to use University incubator space and consult FFMI commercialization experts, so as to engage in talks with pharmaceutical companies or local partners that could help move the product into clinical trials on test patients.
“There is a big commitment from the University to help with these technologies, to help investigators move those toward a commercial endpoint,” Cohen said. “It has been a very big benefit to researchers to have that support and expertise in that area in terms of developing technologies further.”
Radiation Oncology Prof. Mukesh Nyati, Ph.D., another recipient of MTRAC funding, echoed this sentiment. His research resulted in the creation of small proteins and molecules which bind to the surface of cancerous cells and kill them — this, he said, was a step forward from current medical solutions, which deactivate cancer cells as opposed to eliminating them entirely.
Nyati said the University was most helpful in strengthening his business portfolio and helping him spin his product into a company. In the next month, he said, a startup centered on the product will launch. In the next three months, the goal is to establish an office space in the Office of Technology Transfer and begin to seek venture funds. And in the next year, he hopes that the product will enter clinical studies.
He added that the University provided multiple kinds of support that furthered the business aspect of his idea.
“One, which I value a lot, is intellectual value,” Nyati said. “They organized tons of seminars and facilitated our interactions with the business community. This is how we identified our CEO now, because otherwise we would not have come in contact.”
Another form of support, he said, was product development, helping him to narrow down which patients he was looking to target, what kind of cancer in particular would be best hit by the product and what its shortcomings were. The MTRAC funding, as well as the mentorship, was helpful in determining all of these points.
Ward added that, within MTRAC, embedded within the “innovation navigator” division of FFMI is a smaller grant system called the Kickstart Award. The award, which provides recipients with up to $25,000, is given to products early in the development phase, with the hope to enhance their commercial potential and advance them to the point of readiness for a higher-level program like MTRAC.
“The majority of the applicants that did not get funding, the reason they weren’t funded, was because they were perhaps ‘too early,’” Ward said of projects submitted to MTRAC. “But they got great feedback.”
Ultimately, he said, that’s what it’s about: giving researchers the potential for entrepreneurial success. He noted that this success also extends from FFMI’s business team reaching out to industry professionals, to spur co-product development.
“The program is really built to interact with innovation no matter what stage that innovation is in,” he said. “For our faculty who are really hard-pressed for time, especially clinical faculty, they really find that benefits.”