April 11, 2016
Building Bioscience

Breaking silos: the big 'C' in CT's bioscience ambitions is collaboration

PHOTO | PETER MORENUS JR.
PHOTO | PETER MORENUS JR.
UConn professor/bioentrepreneur Dennis Wright is co-founder of the Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut's Health, or PITCH.
James G. Boyle, co-founder and Managing Director, Yale Entrepreneurial Institute

CT's Bioscience Resources

A partial list of Connecticut state agencies and public/private organizations engaged in nurturing the sector. See more detailed info at www.HartfordBusiness.com:

Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) – coordinates the state's public/private investments in a wide range of commercial technology ventures within its borders. Catherine D. Smith is commissioner; 505 Hudson St, Hartford, CT 06108; (860) 270-8000; www.ct.gov/ecd/site/default.asp.

Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE) – a resource hub of the state's bioscience cluster that provides education, networking and advocacy. Susan Froshauer is president/ CEO, 760 Chapel Street @ The Grove, New Haven, CT 06510; Phone: 203-470-2720; www.cureconnect.org.

Connecticut Innovations Inc. – the state's quasi-public technology finance arm is a mentoring/funding source for bioscience/biotechnology startups and ventures. CTNext, an entrepreneurship network, and the CT Bioscience Investment Fund are under its umbrella.Matthew McCooe is CEO, 865 Brook St, Rocky Hill, CT 06067; (860) 563-5851; www.ctinnovations.com

Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut's Health (PITCH) – aims to translate bioscience research from Yale and UConn into new ventures and jobs. Yale professor Craig Crews and UConn professor Dennis Wright are co-founders; pitch.yale.edu

SECT Technology Center – an affiliate of CTNext, SECT is a public-private partnership providing bioscience mentorship and funding access statewide. Tom Gerson. UConn Avery Point Campus, 1080 Shennacossett Road, Groton, CT 06340-6408; (203) 868 9249; Teg6854@gmail.com.

Yale Enterpreneurial Institute – a Yale department that helps on-campus entrepreneurs/innovators start scalable new ventures. James Boyle is managing director; 254 Elm St., 3rd Floor, New Haven, CT 06511; (203)436-8893; yei.yale.edu.

Connecticut /Business & Industry Association's Bioscience Growth Council – advocates on issues important to biotech, pharmaceutical and bioscience-relalted businesses at the State Capitol. Paul Pescatello, senior counsel and executive director; (860)244-1938; paul.pescatello@cbia.com.

At any given time, dozens of research scientists at UConn and Yale, and at other Connecticut universities, are investigating and churning out a myriad of ideas that could someday improve health outcomes for millions worldwide.

So great is the flow of potential game-changing, wealth-building ideas for new drugs and therapeutic treatments that the academic sector, much less the bioscience marketplace, can barely keep pace, Connecticut bioscience experts say.

The gulf is especially wide when it comes to research needed to validate a therapeutic concept so that it someday draws the attention — and wallets — of venture capitalists and pharmaceutical makers willing to shepherd it to market, a process that can consume years and tens of millions of dollars.

Connecticut, however, has taken steps to pull its largest research universities — UConn and Yale — out of their "silos'' and promote collaboration between them and the broader marketplace to elevate the prospects for success in its bioscience ecosystem. The ultimate aim, supporters say, is to retain as many of the technologies and other intellectual property they create, and the startups they generate, at home in this state.

UConn & Yale collaboration

In January, for example, UConn and Yale formally launched their bioscience collaboration, Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut's Health, or PITCH.

According to its backers, PITCH and other formal and informal academic and public-private collaborations, are hallmarks of Connecticut's bioscience ambitions to move more research out of labs and into commercialized, potentially life-saving products.

Dennis Wright, professor of medicinal chemistry at UConn's School of Pharmacy, who teamed with Yale University biochemist-bioentrepreneur Craig M. Crews, said the latest collaboration model supplants the old one in which college scientists publish their research, then hope it draws attention of an investor or drug maker with pockets deep enough to evolve and test the research into a marketable drug.

PITCH, launched about 18 months ago with $10 million in startup funding through the state's Bioscience Innovation Fund, aims to shorten the time needed to validate whether UConn and Yale investigators' basic research is marketable, Wright said.

"The state, through that fund, is acting very strategically,'' said Wright, who has previously launched a pair of bioscience startups of his own. "It reflects an evolving landscape where you can pull all of these resources in the state together and create a powerful engine for growth in biotech.''

PITCH is but the latest example of Yale and UConn's collaborative bent, said Susan Froshauer, a bioentrepreneur who is CEO of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, or CURE.

Center for Biomedical Interventional Technology

Yale's School of Medicine, for instance, has opened its Center for Biomedical Interventional Technology (CBIT). The center's mission is to bring together, Froshauer said, faculty and students interested in starting companies that improve health care via new medical devices and information technology. Mentors and Yale and UConn faculty serve the program that also provides educational events and offers grant opportunities, she said.

Leveraging UConn's strength in engineering, CBIT also holds "hackathon events" to stimulate development of these new healthcare devices, Froshauer said.

"These are weekend-long sessions, where entrepreneurs from across the state, convene to percolate ideas and pop-up new mixes of teams, and pitch possibilities for startups,'' she said. "The diverse and highly engaged teams are judged by members of the statewide community. It is lively and fun, and some exciting new ideas circulate to the top."

The birthing and financing of bioscience and other tech startups is another area in which silos are falling. Take the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI), born in 2008 to grubstake and nurture a wide range of bioscience and "green-technology'' ventures generated by Yale faculty and pupils.

Two years ago, YEI partnered with Connecticut Innovations Inc. (CI) and First Niagara Bank to create the YEI Innovation Fund. Since January 2014, the fund has provided early-stage funding of $100,000 apiece to 10 ventures. That fund's recipients leveraged the $1 million into $21 million more of private equity, according to YEI co-founder and Managing Director James G. Boyle.

It's too soon to gauge the fruits of the YEI Innovation Fund, Boyle said. However, the institute's value has been to expose entrepreneurial Yale pupils to hands-on learning beyond the classroom, he said. According to YEI's homepage, its more than 80 portfolio startups have raised more than $135 million in funding and created more than 350 jobs.

"It was at CI's suggestion that the fund was created in the first place,'' said Boyle, an alum who previously oversaw licensing and startups in Yale's Office of Cooperative Research. "There was quite a bit of thought into what we wanted to do back in 2008. We wanted to create ventures. That's different from teaching principles of entrepreneurship. We were much more focused on creating experiential learning.''

Big fish in Bioscience

Perhaps the most prime example of public-private collaboration, some observers say, is the state's successful wooing of a satellite of one of the world's most renowned and respected bioscience institutions — The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine (Jax), based in Bar Harbor, Maine.

"A thoughtful and strategic move on the part of Connecticut,'' said Michael Hyde, who is the nonprofit organization's vice president for external affairs and strategic partnerships.

Jax received $291 million in state incentives to build its Farmington facility, a deal that generated certain financial rewards for the state. According to Hyde, in addition to jobs, about 80 cents of every dollar of Jax's $40 million Connecticut budget is being spent on goods, services and other expenditures in the state.

Meantime, Jax already is planning for construction of a second administration-laboratory building adjacent to its current home on UConn Health's campus in Farmington, Hyde said.

Finally, Jax's highly-paid workers — many of whom are Millennials from the U.S. and abroad with advanced science and medical degrees — have bought houses or leased apartments in and around the campus, he said.

In addition to one day emerging from Jax's shadows to become bioscience entrepreneurs themselves, Hyde said some Jax hires also brought with them highly educated spouses or significant others willing and able to contribute to Connecticut's economy either as employees or business owners.

Jax UConn Collaboration

Jax's mission to unlock the secrets of the human genome one day could open the door to more effective drugs and treatments for cancer, lung and cardiovascular ailments, among others, and hasten the arrival of "personalized medicine'' in which treatments are prescribed based on a patient's genetic profile.

Jax is also collaborating with UConn and UConn Health. In addition to joint hires, for example, Jax and UConn last August announced they were launching a $7.7 million joint Single Cell Genomics Center in Farmington, enabling researchers from both organizations to isolate and study individual cells.

Meantime, across from UConn Health, at 400 Farmington Ave., is the site of the university's bioscience startup incubator.

Rita Zangari, executive director of UConn's technology incubation program, said the school is currently in talks with about 20 companies interested in partnering with UConn to commercialize research. At least one wants to team with UConn's dental school to apply its technology to certain dental applications, Zangari said.

"The key thing we were looking for that companies not just be here," she said, "but that there be collaborative research between the companies and the university.''

PITCH's aims are similar. But with only a dozen research prospects still gestating in its portfolio, it will take time to see which ones germinate into marketable treatments and technologies, Crews and Wright say.

"I'm optimistic that 10 years from now,'' Crews said, "there will be PITCH graduates whose ventures are growing and succeeding. It's about paying it forward.''

Read the Other Articles in HBJ's Building Bioscience Series

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