Harvard University’s Office of Technology Development last week said it is making available $1.3 million in specialized research funding this year, the second round of a $6 million evergreen fund designed to help commercialize life science innovations developed by Harvard scientists.
The endowment, dubbed the Technology Development Accelerator Fund, in particular aims to establish proof of principle and beef up the intellectual property position of commercially promising biomedical technologies in order to make them more attractive to companies.
In addition, the program scored its first success recently when biopharmaceutical firm Egenix licensed a set of small molecules and biomarkers developed by a pair of Accelerator-funded Harvard scientists. In return, the company agreed to sponsor ongoing research at the university to further develop the technology into potential cancer therapeutics.
Harvard launched the fund last year with $6 million in private donations as an attempt to bridge the oft-cited “development gap” or “valley of death” that occurs when promising university-developed technologies are too advanced to win government funding and not mature enough to attract industry partners.
According to the Accelerator program guidelines and request for proposals, which can be found here, “a significant obstacle to the development and transfer of university technology is the lack of funding for proof-of-concept and validation studies, essential steps required to demonstrate commercial potential.”
To help solve this problem, the program “seeks to support innovative research aimed at extending preliminary observations, establishing proof-of-principle, and generating (or enhancing) intellectual property positions,” the guidelines state. The program funds only research in the life sciences.
Harvard’s OTD, in consultation with an external advisory committee appointed by the office of the provost, is responsible for managing the fund and the progress of funded projects. The six-person advisory committee, which comprises members of the university, business, and venture-capital communities, also makes all award decisions.
According to the program guidelines, projects are funded at a level “deemed necessary to achieve the proposed research and research objectives.” Examples of these objectives include testing lead small molecules in animal models; conducting medicinal chemistry; testing of monoclonal antibodies in animals or human tissue samples for diagnostic and therapeutic uses; and designing, validating, or synthesizing promising small-molecule compounds.
The guidelines state that typical awards will range between $100,000 and $150,000 over one year, and can be used to outsource some of the aforementioned work to approved contract research organizations. If, within a year, a project advances to a stage where it is able to attract external funding from industry, the remaining funds are returned to the Accelerator.
In 2007, the endowment’s first year, the program pumped $1.3 million into six projects. Harvard has not disclosed the projects, which span several disease areas including HIV, cancer, and diabetes. University officials were not immediately available for comment as of press time.
Last week, the Harvard OTD announced the availability of another $1.3 million for this year, and that it is now seeking proposals from Harvard faculty.
One Accelerator awardee from last year that has been disclosed is also the fund’s first success story in terms of attracting industry partners.
Two weeks ago, Egenix, a privately held biotech firm based in Millbrook, NY, announced that it had obtained from Harvard an exclusive license to create cancer drugs based on Harvard-invented small molecules that inhibit translation initiation. In addition, the company licensed translation initiation-specific biomarkers that can be used to assay tumor sensitivity to these compounds.
“This let us set up about 60 cancer cell lines to test … the efficacy of these compounds, and to get started hiring medicinal chemists to optimize the compounds.”
The small molecules and biomarkers were discovered in the laboratories of Jose Halperin, associate professor of medicine; and Gerhard Wagner, professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology, both at Harvard Medical School.
This week, Wagner told BTW that he and Halperin won an approximately $298,000 Accelerator grant for their labs last year to advance the translation-initiation inhibitor technology further down the development pipeline.
Wagner added that he and his colleagues were able to screen some chemical libraries through the Harvard Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology-Longwood screening facility, and conduct some secondary screens that indicated that some of the compounds had anti-tumor effects.
At that point, Wagner and Halperin applied for Accelerator funding after the university had solicited proposals campus-wide. Wagner said that out of an estimated several dozen applications, their project was one of six selected for funding.
“We were then in a position to start setting up cell lines, and this let us set up about 60 cancer cell lines to test … the efficacy of these compounds, and to get started hiring medicinal chemists to optimize the compounds,” Wagner said.
It was at this point that Egenix became interested in the compounds and negotiated an exclusive licensing deal with the Harvard OTD to further develop it into cancer therapeutics.
“We had been aware of this technology for about three months, after which we licensed it,” Donald Fresne, founder, chairman, and CEO of Egenix, told BTW this week. “We were familiar with translation-initiation technology and small molecules, and this particular technology is at the forefront of anything that is being developed as a therapeutic for cancer patients. Assuming it is everything that we and they think it is, it will be a major breakthrough in biotechnology.”
Wagner also said that Egenix brokered a sponsored research agreement with Harvard to continue to fund medicinal chemistry and validation work for the molecules at Harvard. Neither Egenix nor Harvard has disclosed financial details of the licensing or sponsored research agreement.
As a result of the Egenix agreement, Wagner and Halperin only received about $100,000, or roughly four months’ worth of funding from the Accelerator, with the rest being returned to the general fund.
“We have not really had the time to start medicinal chemistry on the compounds,” Wagner said. “We just had time to set up the whole procedure, the cancer cell lines, and to hire medicinal chemists.”
About four months into the Egenix grant, the Harvard researchers “have done initial work on the cancer cell lines, testing which are responsive to this compound, and which are not,” Wagner added. “It’s quite an effort to keep 60 cancer cell lines growing. We have hired medicinal chemists who have started doing these experiments, but it takes some time. It’s fairly early stage.” Wagner did not elaborate on whether the medicinal chemists were Harvard-employed scientists or CRO hires.
Egenix’s Fresne said that although the Accelerator funding was completely separate from his company’s licensing deal with Harvard, that the fund was “a good idea” and something that Harvard “should be doing” to help advance its promising research to a more commercially viable technology.
According to the Accelerator Fund guidelines, the fund has been structured as evergreen, meaning that “a portion of any future licensing proceeds that may be generated from the licensing of technologies arising from, or advanced as a result of Accelerator funding, will be returned to the Accelerator Fund.”
Even without returning licensing revenues to the pot, Harvard said that it estimates it can provide at least another two years’ worth of funding using its original $6 million starting capital. It also said in a statement that it is seeking additional donations to bolster the fund.
According to the 2008 Accelerator request for proposals, the deadline for university researchers to submit a pre-proposal is March 10, after which meritorious pre-proposals will be selected and researchers invited to submit full proposals by May 16. The 2008 Accelerator awards are expected to be announced on June 23, Harvard said.