Marshfield Clinic Aims to Boost Tech Transfer With Cleveland’s Help

The next scientific discovery with the potential to revolutionize healthcare could come from anywhere, whether it’s a massive Boston hospital or a rural Midwestern clinic. But when it comes to the complicated process of taking those discoveries to market, a Boston research team is going to have access to resources its rural brethren can only dream of.

Finding ways to level that playing field is one aim of the Healthcare Innovation Alliance network, a group of eight healthcare systems, universities, and organizations that have banded together to commercialize medical innovations faster. The three-year-old alliance is led by Cleveland Clinic, which makes its more established commercialization staff and resources available to partners in exchange for a negotiated royalty from each technology it helps license or spin off as a company.

Last summer the alliance added its first Wisconsin member, and it wasn’t from Madison or Milwaukee. It was Marshfield Clinic, a highly regarded medical institution named for the small central Wisconsin city of about 19,000 people in which it’s based.

Research has been an emphasis for decades at Marshfield Clinic, which was founded in 1916 and formed a research arm in 1959. Some of its notable research achievements include developing a blood test in the 1960s for detecting the microbes that cause farmer’s lung, an allergic disease usually brought on by moldy hay or crops that can result in permanent lung damage; diagnosing in 2003 the first case in the western hemisphere of a human infected with monkeypox virus; and discovering in the early 1990s so-called short tandem repeat polymorphisms, which are genetic markers that help researchers identify specific parts of chromosomes that could cause disease.

Formal efforts to commercialize research are relatively new at Marshfield Clinic, however. In 2006 it formed a division partly focused on overseeing intellectual property, resulting in just two license agreements so far, said Marsha Barwick, Marshfield Clinic Applied Sciences director.

“We had some successes, a few good wins. We felt like we had more innovative technologies out there,” Barwick said. “We knew we had to dedicate more resources to making this a priority.”

Rather than building up their applied sciences division, which has a staff of two, Marshfield Clinic decided to find a partner with an existing commercialization infrastructure and proven track record, Barwick said.

Marshfield found what it was looking for in Cleveland Clinic, and it will now have access to Cleveland Clinic’s team of more than 70 people dedicated to commercializing research, Barwick said. A Cleveland Clinic employee will move to Marshfield later this year, acting as a sort of case file manager for each discovery or invention reported by Marshfield Clinic staff. At that point, experts at Cleveland Clinic will vet the idea, ensuring it’s a novel one that isn’t already patented, analyzing the market potential, and guiding it to potential licensing or spinout in collaboration with the inventor and Marshfield Clinic.

“Now we can do that very quickly and with a high degree of certainty that we’ve made the right decision as to whether or not it is a technology we can commercialize,” Barwick said. “To some degree we’ve created a very large department of resources just by virtue of the relationship, without having to create duplicated positions in-house here, which would take a long time to [form] that structure.”

Another benefit is access to the proverbial Rolodex of angel investors, VCs, and other stakeholders that Cleveland Clinic has built up, said Brian Kolonick, a project manager and new business developer for the alliance. Those connections could be a boon for an organization like Marshfield Clinic, which is relatively isolated, despite being centrally located within driving distance of Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Madison.

Undoubtedly there are always challenges in funding innovation, especially at the proof of concept stage, no matter the location, Kolonick said.

“We’re in Cleveland, not in Boston or San Francisco, where you traditionally find VC dollars,” Kolonick said. “But we’ve been able to get a reputation and drive investment. I think the same will hold true for Marshfield.”

Marshfield Clinic probably won’t see the first commercial fruits of this partnership for at least three years, a reasonable timeline for most new technologies to hit the market, Kolonick said. Early products could include those coming out of Marshfield’s information technology research; Kolonick noted that Marshfield created its own electronic medical records system more than 20 years ago, and it has since formed a software services company that helps customers manage health information and patient data. For products that require clinical trials and more federal oversight, like medical devices and drugs, taking one discovery to market could require more than a decade.

Streamlining that process was one of the key aims when the Healthcare Innovation Alliance launched in 2011 with a partnership between Cleveland Clinic and MedStar Health, a $4.2 billion not-for-profit and the largest healthcare provider in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., regions.

The coalition—which now includes the likes of University of Notre Dame and North Shore-LIJ, a New York-area healthcare system that is one of the nation’s largest—is unusual because few organizations have the capability of Cleveland Clinic to assemble this type of group, said Lita Nelsen, director of the technology licensing office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an Xconomist.

Cleveland Clinic Innovations, the nationally ranked health system’s commercialization arm, has licensed 450 technologies and spun out 66 companies that have raised more than $750 million in equity investments since its launch 14 years ago.

So far MedStar has licensed one technology through the alliance, a device that aims to make breathing easier for patients with severe lung and neuromuscular diseases. MedStar and Cleveland Clinic announced that deal with InnoVital Systems of Beltsville, MD, in December. MedStar staff have made 200 invention disclosures since joining the alliance in 2011, with 50 currently under review and 20 in some form of development, said Ann Nickels, a MedStar spokeswoman.

One licensing deal out of 200 disclosures in three years isn’t much, Nelsen said, but the alliance is still in its infancy. “You need the resources and the time to learn and establish connections with investors and industry, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Another key to the alliance’s success will be getting the researchers at Marshfield and other member institutions to buy into the model, and that requires commercialization staff establishing personal relationships with researchers and understanding their objectives, Nelsen said. “That culture change of getting the scientists really believing in this process—if you go too fast it becomes too impersonal and bureaucratic.”

If all goes well, participation in the alliance will help Marshfield Clinic researchers build ties not only with the tech transfer staff but also with researchers at other member institutions. MedStar and University of Notre Dame, for example, were already researching new ways to diagnose and treat concussions in athletes. Now they’re exploring ways for their research teams to work together, with the Cleveland Clinic Innovations employees on the ground at each institution coordinating the collaborative efforts.

“It’s not something we like to view as a hub and spoke model,” Kolonick said of the alliance. adding that he thinks that cross-institution collaboration is becoming increasingly important in healthcare.

“The goal is to get technologies to help patients and help bend the [healthcare] cost curve as well,” Kolonick said. “I do think you’re going to see a lot more collaboration.”

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