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got the spotlight for innovations in stem cell research by James Thomson, the director of regenerative biology at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Back in the ’90s, Menlo Park, CA-based Geron (NASDAQ: GERN) licensed Thomson’s technology, and worked for years to start its first clinical trial of embryonic stem cells in patients with spinal cord injuries. Two years ago, as Geron brought in new management, it opted to stop that program and focus on cancer drug development.
Thomson co-founded another company, Cellular Dynamics, which develops induced pluripotent stem cell technologies for drug and therapeutic development. Cellular Dynamics (NASDAQ: ICEL) went public earlier this year.
I spoke recently with Gulbrandsen and Leigh Cagan, WARF’s chief technology commercialization officer, about the foundation’s efforts, including a new $30 million IT-focused venture fund. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Xconomy: Tell me about the evolution of the process of tech transfer. It seems like WARF, with its nearly 90-year history, has a unique perspective on this.
Leigh Cagan: Universities were rightly seen as great centers of innovation and resources for new breakthrough ideas with potentially high economic value. When I got out of business school in the mid ’80s, I helped to start a computer company at Yale, and we got top-notch venture money from the Northeast [investors]. Today, it would be nearly impossible to start that company. Investors want to take on new technologies that have lower risks than what you typically find in the university setting. They want to see a working prototype. They’d want to see you take a new drug to Phase 1 or even through Phase 2 clinical trials for FDA approval.
In most of the history of tech transfer, it was possible years ago, to license only a target for a drug to engage in a discussion with a pharma company. Now, you need a unique chemical identity with a family of compounds that are patent-protected, with early animal data or Phase 1 or higher clinical trials underway or completed.
You’re seeing a broad effort on the part of investors to step away from that risk. But that means somebody has to fill that hole if there’s going to be a pipeline of compelling innovation that can lead to a breakthrough.
X: So what are you doing at WARF to fill in this gap?
LC: We created the WARF Accelerator Program four years ago, under which we will grant dollars to projects that are still inside the university to specifically and narrowly improve their potential to be commercialized. It’s not just money for basic research. It’s milestone-driven funding that directly relates to the value proposition of a startup. This can be used for building prototypes, industrial design, analyzing a path to an FDA approval. Our experts in the program help us to understand the best use for a modest amount of dollars in a particular point of time. There is no question … Next Page »
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