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Caroline Dealy never expected to be an entrepreneur. In fact, as an associate professor of reconstructive sciences, orthopedic surgery and cell biology at UConn Health, Dealy knew very little about the business of bioscience.
“As scientists, we're trained to do research and solve problems, not necessarily to commercialize the outcomes,” she said.
But that approach has shifted, Dealy said, over the past decade, as universities — with investment from state resources, private investors and pharmaceutical companies — have sought to transform academic discoveries into viable medical solutions.
Dealy's first foray into biotech entrepreneurship came in 2010, when she co-founded Chondrongenics Inc. — a UConn-backed startup. The company developed a technique to convert human embryonic stem cells into cartilage cells, a therapeutic approach with the potential to treat osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease caused by cartilage deterioration that effects nearly 21 million Americans.
Work on that startup, Dealy said, evolved her approach to research.
“Now, I think about how a research project might have value for a patient, or solve a medical problem because now I know there's a path to commercialization that wasn't clear to me.”
It also taught her the trials and tribulations of the commercialization process, which is a multi-year endeavor with lots of risk and rounds of clinical trials that can cost millions.
Chondrongenics developed five patents related to Dealy's osteoarthritis treatment, but the startup is no longer active because investor funding has dried up. She said she is still seeking partners who might want to license those patents to move the technology forward.
“I now have a better understanding [as a startup entrepreneur] of the types of experiments or the need for specific data that an investor or the Food and Drug Administration may want to see,” Dealy said. “That might mean I design a different type of experiment than if [academically] I just wanted to know how a [particular] molecule works.”
That new approach has helped Dealy found her second startup under the UConn banner last August, called DeMay Bio. The company is focused on research that Dealy hopes holds commercial viability as a supplemental therapy for rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that effects about 3 million people in the U.S.
Dealy's latest venture has attracted educational and development support from the Accelerator for Biosciences in Connecticut (ABCT), a competitive six-month accelerator program designed to encourage research students and faculty to form new bioscience ventures. Funded through Connecticut Innovations and CTNext, the program, which launched in 2018, features a mini-MBA curriculum, expert coaching, networking and venture advisors from corporate supporters.
“We spend a lot of time helping with business modeling,” said Mary Howard, ABCT's program manager. “We help educate [researchers] about issues like intellectual property, finance and accounting and fundraising, and how all of that impacts their business growth.”
There are many key milestones for a research project to go through before an early stage company with space, employees and equipment is formed, Howard said.
“Our goal is for our participating startups to develop a plan that they're ready to execute, but it's still very early in the [business] process,” she said.
That's what Dealy is currently focused on at DeMay Bio, which was selected with 11 other companies to participate in the second year of ABCT's accelerator program.
“ABCT is helping us build our team out — and connecting us with all kinds of experts who can help us map our path forward,” Dealy said. She said resources like ABCT, and what UConn has provided her, are helpful in building relationships with potential investors, including pharmaceutical companies.
Dealy is also working to pass on the lessons from her entrepreneurial ventures to the next generation of scientists. She offers an immersive five-day course in bio innovation available to first-year UConn medical and dental students.
“They learn about patents and the process of translating ideas into a [startup],” Dealy said. “It doesn't mean they'll all become entrepreneurs, but we want to expose our students to this kind of training so they understand the potential opportunities.”
Meantime, her advances in potential solutions for rheumatoid arthritis are in the testing and validation stages. With a new long-term goal for her research, Dealy has changed some elements of her work.
“There's a part that's still basic science and I will always love the intricacies of cells and genes and how they work,” Dealy said. “But now I take a step back and think through the [potential] clinical benefits and see my research from a whole new lens.”
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