The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has awarded the University of Kansas $8.1 million to establish a proof-of-concept center that will help drive medical innovations toward commercialization, the Kauffman Foundation said this week.
The planned center, called the Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation, will receive matching funds from the KU Endowment Association, and will provide seed grants for as many as 24 POC projects per year undertaken by researchers from KU and Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Hospital.
The institute will also recruit independent drug-development and medical device experts to help guide and support the projects, and partner with companies such as Kansas-based drug-development consulting firm Beckloff Associates to further develop promising technologies.
These efforts will particularly focus on creating pediatric versions of existing drugs and medical devices through an existing partnership with the non-profit Institute for Pediatric Innovation, Kauffman said.
Kauffman based the idea for the IAMI on existing academic POC centers such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation and the University of California-San Diego’s von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement.
The foundation highlighted both centers in a January report on successful models of university technology commercialization.
That report, co-authored by researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Economics, asserted that such centers can serve as much-needed catalysts to traditional university technology transfer, and urged other academic institutions to consider adopting similar programs.
At the time, Kauffman, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., said it would spearhead an effort to organize a network of academic POC centers to study best practices, establish metrics to better measure innovation, and define future areas of research. Now, the foundation is putting the rubber to the road by actually funding a similar POC center it said it hopes can serve as a model to other universities.
“Over the past three or four years, we’ve begun to understand that the amount of research funding at your university isn’t necessarily indicative of commercial outcome,” Lesa Mitchell, vice president for advancing innovation at the Kauffman Foundation, told BTW this week.
“We ultimately found that by inserting the right people into the university — and by right people, I mean people with real commercialization expertise — and by ensuring that the university has an open collaborative policy and culture relative to university-industry collaboration and to working with philanthropists, that … we had a really unique opportunity in our own backyard, which we frankly never thought would happen.”
Kauffman, whose endowment stretches to nearly $2 billion, had previously provided small amounts of seed funding to support various KU research projects over the past few years, according to Mitchell. In many of these projects, KU researchers partnered with industry to help advance the projects through the POC stage.
A stipulation of the current award, however, was for the KU Endowment Association to match the $8.1 million through contributions from other donors, a process that is already underway.
“The reason it was important to us that it was from the [KU] endowment is that as we have found in many other projects, university policy and practice will be critical in the success of the outcomes of this work,” Mitchell said. “We needed to make sure that the university at the level of the board clearly understood the impact of their policy and practices as we work through this grant for the next couple of years.”
“We’ve begun to understand that the amount of research funding at your university isn’t necessarily indicative of commercial outcome.”
Scott Weir, director of the office of therapeutics, discovery, and development at KU and director of the new institute, told BTW this week that the school will use the funds to hire independent experts — at least three to start — in drug and medical device development to help guide projects toward commercialization.
“Let’s say you’re a faculty member with a potentially new drug,” Weir said. “We will assign a pharma manager to you to help develop a project plan to advance the technology through a series of decisions. These people would be from the pharma and medical device industry and would have experience managing these kinds of projects.”
The IAMI will also use funds to support 10 graduate students and four postdoctoral fellowships in drug discovery and development and medical device research.
“We will be training them on the commercialization process, but they will also be receiving exposure to entrepreneurship: training and hands-on exposure in what is needed to attract VC interest, and what’s involved in starting a company,” Weir said.
Lastly, the award will enable IAMI to provide seed funds for as many as 24 POC projects per year. An advisory board of independent experts in drug and medical device development, which is currently being assembled, will help decide whether projects have enough promise to move to the next stage – typically meaning seeking regulatory approval in collaboration with industry partners.
Another key component of the IAMI is a partnership with the Institute for Pediatric Innovation, a Boston-based non-profit research institute that Kauffman helped establish in 2006 with $100,000 in seed funding.
IPI’s goal is to improve pediatric medical care by developing new products and creating pediatric versions of existing drugs and medical devices. This mission statement dovetails with expertise at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Hospital, Mitchell said.
Thus, an undisclosed but significant portion of the overall IAMI award will be used to support IPI-related projects, Mitchell and Weir said. IPI has already identified three undisclosed projects that IAMI will help commercialize over the next year.
“There are drug products on the market today that would be useful for children and could be indicated for treating childhood disease,” Weir said. “But pediatric forms of things like high blood pressure medicines or medical devices are really not available” because large pharmaceutical and medical device companies typically do not have enough of a financial incentive to develop these products, he added.
As an example, Weir said that KU and Mercy have developed a pediatric liquid form of an undisclosed hypertension drug that has previously only been available only in adult form.
“IPI has said, ‘Here’s one of the drugs we’d like to make available in children’s form,’ and now we have worked with Beckloff, Mercy, and others to chart the plan to bring this product to the market,” Weir said.
“At this point the product is ready now to leave our labs at KU and go into commercial laboratories and then into the formal drug development process to meet FDA requirements,” he added.
The remainder of the Kauffman grant and KU endowment match will be used to support projects including but not limited to cancer, bone disease, liver disease, and anti-infectives, Weir said, with cancer being the top priority.
“On the drug side, we currently have 72 projects ongoing,” Weir said. “About half the projects we are working on are in cancer. The number one priority for KU is to establish a comprehensive cancer center, but clearly we’re trying to support all of our faculty’s projects.”
If any of the projects were to necessitate patent protection or become marketed, the various institutes involved in the project would share both the expenses and the license or royalty payments, Weir said.
The Kauffman Foundation, however, does not stand to gain financially should any of the projects move forward. Instead, the foundation’s main interest is essentially proving a new model for others to follow, Mitchell said.
“There is a significant amount of [National Institutes of Health] money through [commercialization assistance] programs out there with the goal of commercializing basic research,” Mitchell said. “While there are myriad models trying to do that, we have not seen a lot of success. So we’re hoping that the NIH and other philanthropists that could be interested in funding similar programs at other universities will take a look at this model and take to heart some of the lessons that we’re putting together.”