How to Navigate the Challenges of Commercialization
Learning the Ropes - Irving Institute’s Translational Therapeutics Accelerator (TRx) Helps Researchers Navigate the Challenges of Commercialization
For researchers who are more accustomed to the laboratory than the boardroom, the notion of trying to commercialize a discovery can feel overwhelming. Translating complex science and years of research into a viable “pitch” is an intimidating challenge by itself. And the prospect of making the necessary connections with tech and venture capitalist (VC) groups can feel impossible. But perhaps the most difficult part of the process is simply knowing where to start.
Thanks to resources like the Irving Institute’s Translational Therapeutics Accelerator (TRx), researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) don’t have to go it alone. One of a number of accelerator programs available in partnership with Columbia Technology Ventures (CTV), the TRx is designed to both streamline the commercialization process and help researchers understand what they need to successfully move their research toward the market.
The TRx offers help with every step of the commercialization process and lets researchers leverage the considerable resources available through CTV, according to Dr. Maria Rahmany, program manager for TRx and senior business development officer at CTV.
“CTV is the university's tech transfer office,” explains Rahmany. “It’s where we patent innovations emerging from the Columbia research labs, working with them to market their technology, and then help with commercialization. We connect them with investors that are interested in opportunities at Columbia, or pharma companies that are scouting for new innovations to fill their pipelines. But what's really cool about Columbia is that we also put attention on earlier-stage projects through our accelerator programs, like TRx.”
Rahmany has cultivated a network of industry contacts through her role at CTV, and she brings those connections with her to TRx. “For example, if I talk to a VC firm, they may let me know that their real interest is seeing early-stage, pre-startup projects,” explains Rahmany. “Then I can mention that I also run this therapeutics accelerator and ask if they would like to be involved as a member of TRx’s steering committee. And they're often excited to do so because they get a peek into what we're working on before we're marketing broadly.”
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that can help bring the right parties together. “We benefit from their feedback as part of the review,” she says. “We try to match the industry executive’s expertise with the project background, but we also allow the steering committee members to self-select if something seems really exciting to them.”
Making People See the Value
For researchers like Dr. Henry Colecraft, John C. Dalton Professor of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics and professor of pharmacology at CUIMC, the experience was truly eye-opening.
“I think as researchers, when we present science, we present it a certain way,” says Colecraft. “It's very dry and ‘scientific.’ It isn’t all about just hardcore science. You have to position it. You have to make the people that are hearing about it see the potential value of it beyond the great science we're excited about.”
That’s where the Life Science Accelerator Lab to Market Boot Camp can help. “As part of the journey through the TRx program, getting coaching from people, we learned that we had to tailor our pitches in a certain different way,” explains Colecraft.
Colecraft’s lab had developed a platform technology that uses synthetic antibodies to selectively prevent a cell’s destruction of specific proteins. This approach was initially applied to cystic fibrosis but could conceivably be used to treat a number of ion channel diseases, which are caused by destabilized proteins. “It just seemed like it was built for having a very broad appeal,” notes Colecraft. “And that was one of the things that we found exciting about it, that we thought could potentially garner some excitement in the biotech world.”
Colecraft started working with the TRx in 2017, when Rahmany presented the program during one of Colecraft’s classes. Working with Dr. Scott Kanner, then a MD/PhD student in his lab, Colecraft decided to apply. “Part of the process was a bootcamp to teach you how to commercialize things,” remembers Colecraft. “This was quite welcome, because as academics, we really didn't have the first clue as to how you actually go through a lot of these steps.”
They submitted their project in the TRx’s 2017 cycle, went through the educational bootcamp, and turned in a full proposal that was reviewed by the TRx steering committee. The project was ultimately selected for the TRx Pilot Award for one year. “We got some funding from it, and we got a lot of the ‘know-how’ component,” says Colecraft. “We got to meet a lot of people in the tech fields and from venture capital.”
Colecraft submitted a second project because the technology had developed from a protein engineering approach to a small molecule approach. “And that required us to get maybe a bit more capital because we didn't have a project assigned to that,” he says.
“And then in our 2019 cohort, their second project was selected for funding as well,” says Rahmany. “Both of those small amounts of pilot funding from the therapeutics accelerator helped get our projects advanced enough so that an investor would want to invest.”
Another benefit of the TRx program is connecting researchers with mentors. Colecraft and Kanner worked with Mike Norsen from Alexandria Real Estate, where he scouts for early stage investment opportunities and also runs the Alexandria Launch Labs at Columbia, across the street from CUIMC in the Lasker building. Norsen helped them develop their network of investors. “And that was in part because he got to see the project and was excited about it,” notes Rahmany.
Colecraft and Kanner were a great fit for the TRx. “One of the things that made Henry and Scott great participants of the program is that they were active and involved in the educational component,” says Rahmany. “They attended the bootcamp sessions and were open to feedback and suggestions from the mentors. Plus, their projects really targeted an unmet clinical need. So we knew that there was a market available for advancing these technologies because we know that's what investors are looking for.”
This fruitful collaboration led to the launch of Stablix Therapeutics, a biotechnology company that specializes in targeted protein stabilization (TPS). The startup raised an impressive $63 million in series A funding. “This is by far the largest series A that we've had one of our startups raise,” notes Rahmany.
So what advice would Rahmany give to researchers that might be interested in the TRx? “Apply, apply, apply, apply,” she jokes. “It could start with just a conversation with a licensing officer at CTV about the landscape of funding opportunities. Because these internal accelerator programs have been so successful, we've been able to make partnerships with industry. There are so many other funding opportunities available for faculty. So just come have the conversation with us and learn about them.”
As for Colecraft, he strongly encourages other researchers to take advantage of the opportunities TRx offers. “As a researcher, I got interested in science because I’m interested in fundamental mechanistic questions,” he says. “That is still my guiding principle. But I think as I've evolved in my career, I've learned to look for opportunities that science can be translated to do something useful for the world.”
“I like that an idea that germinates in the lab can potentially have this effect out there in the broader world,” he says. “I find that actually quite satisfying. It makes me want to encourage anyone who thinks that their research or technology could have a potential impact on the broader world to actually perceive that. I want them to see if they can bring that to fruition.”