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Philly's University City Science Center Debuts $1.2M POC Fund for Academic Life-Sci Projects

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The Philadelphia University City Science Center and area academic partners last week officially launched the first round of a pilot program to provide funding for proof-of-concept studies performed by researchers at regional academic institutions who seek to commercialize their life-science discoveries.

As part of the first round of funding, a grant committee overseen by UCSC and comprising members of the local life sciences community will choose three applications submitted by 10 institutions from the greater Philadelphia area, Delaware, and New Jersey to receive one-year grants worth up to $200,000 each.

Competition for the grants could be stiff, however, as the pilot program, called QED, could receive as many as 300 applications according to pre-solicitations submitted to the UCSC, its president and CEO, Stephen Tang, told BTW last week.

Under the first phase of the QED program, which is thus far financed with $1 million from UCSC and another $200,000 from regional economic-development engine Ben Franklin Technology Partners, researchers from participating academic and research institutions are to submit project proposals including the amount of money needed to achieve proof of concept.

Academic institutions eligible to submit proposals for the first round are: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Drexel University, the Lankenau Institute of Medical Research, Rutgers University, Temple University, Thomas Jefferson University, the University of Delaware, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and the Wistar Institute.

UCSC said that it anticipates funding three projects from this group. The university or research institute associated with a winning project would be required to provide 50 percent of the project budget through a combination of in-kind and cash contribution, Tang said.

Projects are required to fall under the life sciences umbrella but can be in any category, from research tools to therapeutics to medical devices. Researchers interested in applying should do so in conjunction with their institution's tech-transfer office, but can find more information on the UCSC website. Though it hasn't provided a deadline for applications, the organization said that funding for round one would be available in September.

Investment-Grade

Though UCSC has formed an advisory committee for its operations, it has not yet created a team to review grant applications.

"We're looking for what sort of breadth in the research projects we'll need to accommodate," Tang told BTW. "If there is a large focus on therapeutics … then we'll need to recruit people that can evaluate therapeutics.

"We have done a pre-solicitation so we know where the general areas of interest are," he said, declining to elaborate. "But we're not sure if that will map directly into the types of proposals we're going to receive."

Nevertheless, one of the main criteria for funding will be whether a project is "investment-grade," Tang said, adding that a fundable project will be one in which there is likely further investment interest.

"The researcher will make a proposal as to how much money is needed, and we will look at whether it is really possible to prove concept in the amount of time for the money requested," he said. "Doing what you say you will do is important."

Thus, although projects are eligible to receive as much as $200,000, the actual grant could be less depending on the need of the project.

George Pipia, associate director of business development at the Wistar Institute, said that the funding program may help support applied research projects that typically have a difficult time attracting federal funding.

With this challenge in mind, the QED funding program "gives us an additional venue to potentially increase the value of the invention," Pipia said. "It's extra money that you can apply to the most promising, most advanced projects."

Two Wistar scientists have already applied for funding, Pipia said. One is Paul Lieberman, a professor in Wistar's gene expression and regulation program, who is developing inhibitors of Epstein-Barr virus and has been trying to conduct high-throughput screens of compounds against specific viral gene targets.

"QED would be a perfect fit for this project so that hopefully he can do this experiment," Pipia said. "Once he finds small molecules that work in his screening assay, it would be much easier to find outside funding."

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A second Wistar researcher, Qihong Huang, an assistant professor in the molecular and cellular oncogensis program, seeks to develop a high-throughput screen of molecules that can suppress oncogenic microRNAs.

"Again, it's very difficult to get a grant from the [National Institutes of Health] for this type of very applied research," Pipia said.

Driving Interest

As reported in February by BTW sister publication BioRegion News, UCSC unveiled the QED program at the time to provide a boost to bio-related tech transfer and economic development in the region.

QED — an abbreviation of the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum, literally translated as "which was to be demonstrated" — was to be rolled out in three phases, with different groups of regional institutions eligible to receive awards in each phase.

According to BioRegion News, Tang said during the February press event that the center would collect project pre-solicitations through the end of March, and planned to issue its first request for proposals in June or July.

However, intense interest accelerated the QED grant process, and Tang and other UCSC officials worked with the first group of area institutions to negotiate funding terms and conditions.

As a result, UCSC sent out its first request for white paper proposals last week. Tang said that pre-solicitations revealed that the program may receive as many as 300 grant applications.

"What's driving that interest is the current climate, and the fact that many projects aren't getting funded at all," Tang said. "We expect the number of applications to be high and the quality to be high."

Though QED has enough funding to last for the three-round pilot program, Tang said that he hopes to make the program evergreen by receiving a cut of any profits that might be generated by projects receiving funding.

"Sustainability of the program is one of our key goals," Tang said. "If projects we fund go on to become bona fide companies or develop into commercial products, there are certain provisions" that would direct undisclosed royalties and/or equity returns to the QED program, he added.

"The milestone we came to [last week] was coming up with agreement that worked for all institutions," Tang said. "It would be an equity position and a royalty position. We tried to present numbers that would be palatable to each organization."

Tang said that there were multiple challenges associated with this goal.

"This is one of the first, if not the first, attempts to create a multi-institutional proof-of-concept program in the country," Tang said. "You have different maturity levels in understanding tech transfer at the university level. There are very prominent universities involved with experienced tech-transfer people. And there are some institutions that are newer to tech transfer and more inexperienced."

In September, around the same time the first awards are being made, QED will release another request for proposals for technologies developed at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia University, Rowan University, Villanova University, and Widener University.

And early next year, a third RFP will go to researchers from Delaware State University, East Stroudsburg University, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, Lincoln University, the Philadelphia College of Medicine, Salus University, and Swarthmore College.

Tang said QED will likely fund five projects from the second group and as many as 10 projects from the third group.

Another notable part of the QED initiative is its plan to recruit regional entrepreneurs and life-sciences executives to pair with grant winners. This is designed to serve two purposes: to provide entrepreneurial guidance to university researchers who "probably have little experience in the commercial world," and to give local life-sciences leaders a window into potential investment opportunities.

"We're designed to get the ball rolling," Tang said. "There will be skin in the game from other entities in the region — that's why we have them involved."

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