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WashU's Tech-Transfer Co-Director on Beefing Up Entrepreneurship

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Bradley Castanho
co-director and business development director
Office of Technology Management, Washington University
Name: Bradley Castanho
 
Position: Interim co-director and business development director, Office of Technology Management, Washington University, St. Louis
 
Background: Founder and head, Statim, St. Louis; Various marketing and research positions, Monsanto, St. Louis; PhD, plant pathology, University of California, Davis

 
Washington University in St. Louis, one of the top recipients of research grants from the US National Institutes of Health, has not traditionally found itself among the top universities in terms of technology commercialization.
 
To remedy this notion, the university’s Office of Technology Management has recently upped its efforts to better maximize the school’s return on research investment. Its efforts began last year when it promoted Samuel Stanley to the position of vice chancellor for research at WashU’s School of Medicine, and the subsequent appointments of Bradley Castanho and Michael Marrah as co-directors of the OTM and assistant vice chancellors for research.
 
The backgrounds of Castanho, a former business-development manager and researcher for Monsanto, and Marrah, a patent lawyer, complement one another, and the two have been instrumental in beefing up WashU’s tech-transfer efforts.
 
Last week, BTW caught up with Castanho to discuss the WashU OTM’s efforts and how it plays into St. Louis-area economic development.
 
What is your background and how did you become involved in tech-transfer efforts at Washington University?
 
I worked at Monsanto, here in St. Louis, for close to 25 years. I started off in the research part of the organization, then moved more into development and commercialization of technologies, and then finished my career at Monsanto more in sales and marketing. Most of my career has been on the commercial side of discovering, developing, commercializing, and selling technologies to, in my case, the plant science and agricultural markets.
 
About five years ago, I left Monsanto, and looking for some new opportunities was approached by [former associate vice chancellor for research] Michael Douglas to join the effort here, initially as a consultant. I was then hired as a business-development person about four years ago. Michael left the office about a year ago, and I then took on the interim responsibility of the office along with Mike Marrah. About a month or so ago, Mike and I were offered the position as co-directors of the office.
 
When did Washington University really start moving forward in beefing up its tech-transfer efforts?
 
I don’t have all the [history], but I would say that 10 to 15 years ago the institution moved it from something that was a little less organized and more diffuse within the organization. About 10 to 15 years ago, things were probably not as centralized. About 10 years ago they started bringing all the pieces of tech transfer into a unified office. Things have since then been pretty well organized within a centralized office.
 
Our office serves the entire university, so our role is to supply the tech-transfer support and IP management for all of the university. We have two facilities, and in between them is this huge municipal park. On one side of the park we have the main campus, or the Danforth campus, as it is referred to. That houses the engineering school, the biomedical engineering school, arts and sciences, and computer sciences. On the other side of the park is the medical school, which is associated with Barnes Jewish Hospital and Children’s Hospital. We’re kind of integrated into one facility, if you will, all in the geographic area of the med school and the hospitals.
 
Are engineering and biomedical/life sciences WashU’s two biggest areas in terms of ripeness for commercialization?
 
Yes. At the end of the day, I think the 80/20 rule applies. Eighty percent, or even more, of what we do is on the life sciences and biomedical side of managing IP. Far less of what we see in the management of IP is engineering, and less than that would be Arts and Sciences. The medical school is by far the largest component of that.
 
As you said, WashU really got its tech-transfer efforts going 10 to 15 years ago, but recent articles discuss how the university may have been falling behind in this area despite its solid reputation for sponsored and federally funded research. Do you feel you had fallen behind?
 
I think if you look statistically – and I think you can make statistics look any way you want – if you look at where we fit within the list of our peer institutions – and for that, I gauge it on the position of WashU in US News and World Report, where it is a top-20 university in the world and in the US. We probably have one of the top two to three medical schools in the nation. When you look at it in the context of how much NIH funding we get – $400 million or so [annually] – one can argue that there should be more output that results from that level [of funding].
 
If you look at the AUTM report, or some of the other reports, we’re not high on those lists, whether you’re measuring on revenue, or on the number of disclosures or patents. There seems to be less of a numerical statistical position for Wash U than, say, our peer institutions. Where we’re trying to go is to increase the amount of deal flow and opportunities that we have in the institution beyond what we’ve seen in the past. I think we’re trying to change some things in the makeup of the office. We’re trying to focus a little more on the things we do, like any office. It may be a little different than what [Joel] Kirschbaum and colleagues are doing at UCSF [see BTW 3/5/07]. They’re pretty well-focused on life sciences; they’re a graduate school, and we obviously have graduates and undergraduates; and we obviously serve the entire university, so we have a broader portfolio of faculty. We also do perhaps a lot more in the sense that we are a full-service office. We handle all the material transfer agreements for the university; we do all the industry MTAs; we do all the sponsored research agreements for the university; we do all the licensing and patent management; and we do all of the financial management. I don’t think this is unusual, but it does dictate how many resources you have relative to the different aspects of those resources that you’re actually providing resources for.
 
I’m not sure that we’ve been a laggard in tech transfer. I think the expectation relative to what some of these statistics say can be a little misleading.
 
Where are these expectations coming from?
 
Most of the expectations in that regard probably come from the community. In the past five years, St. Louis has been building a bio-belt, or building a community where life science and biotechnology can invigorate the economy of the region. Central to that whole expectation, of course, is Washington University. In a lot of ways, the community looks at WashU to provide the raw materials for start-up opportunities. I think that has created a large expectation that we have the raw material, and the faculty that should and could become the entrepreneurs of the future. I think that in a lot of ways, the alignment of the community expectations with the university – although we’re doing a lot more today than five or 10 years ago – that’s where a lot of that criticism, curiosity, or expectation comes from. Even in the last three to five years we’re doing things to facilitate more start-ups in the region, and to do things more quickly and efficiently than in the past to create these opportunities.
 
In the Bay area, or in the Boston area, I don’t know if there is that much pressure put on the institutions from the community. Obviously Harvard and MIT have been at this for quite a bit longer than this area, and they’re probably under different pressures than we are. But to be blunt, WashU, when it comes to the raw materials for start-up companies, is the main source for the state of Missouri. Kansas City, across the state, obviously has the Stowers Institute and others; but when it comes to this side of the state, and the St. Louis region, we definitely represent the biggest source.
When you read or hear about the state of our tech-transfer efforts, it’s not so much from WashU internally, or from people looking at the AUTM reports; I think it has more to do with the community, where we play a big role.
 
So has the university focused more recently on creating start-ups as opposed to licensing out technologies to established companies?
 
I think in the last several years, yes. I wouldn’t say it is necessarily a result of the addition of Mike Marrah and myself. But we certainly are trying to adjust how we do things such that we can integrate our technologies into start-up opportunities, either at some of our incubators, or, more importantly, into the BioGenerator, which is kind of a gap organization in St. Louis that looks for nascent technologies to create companies that ultimately can be invested in. We are probably more integrated today into those entities than we have [been] in the past. We are also providing access to our technologies earlier, so we’re allowing them to look at these technologies earlier than we have in the past. We’re exposing our faculty members to more entrepreneurism. We have various training programs here at the university inside our fence line, where we’re trying to provide entrepreneurial training of our faculty that are interested in starting a company. So there are pieces that are coming together and have been in existence for a couple of years. We’re just trying to [optimize] their effectiveness and impact.
 
Doesn’t this mean that many of the researchers have to show an interest in getting involved in a business venture? Is that a challenge?
 
It’s a fair point. We have seen a shift in our faculty entrepreneurism in the past few years. Historically one could raise an argument that entrpreneurism may not have been to the same level as it was in other parts of the US, but we see more and more faculty, as they join WashU and become attracted to WashU, coming from other parts of the country that want to connect into our office very early. In some cases, we’ve actually been part of the interview process and decision process for them to come here. So we’re seeing more entrepreneurial faculty coming to us that want to see their technologies cross the barrier from science into the commercial arena. That is becoming more energized in the Midwest as a whole.
 
The other aspect is that in order to create start-up opportunities for the region, there are so many elements that have to come together at the right time and place. You have to have the infrastructure in place, the financial basis in terms of angels and VCs, the entrpreneurial culture, and of course, the science and technology. All of these things have started to come together in the past couple of years better than five to 10 years ago.
 
Our role is clear – we’re the supplier of the IP and scientific expertise, but obviously we’re not investors, and we don’t have facilities that companies can start up in. We are doing better at understanding our role in that process.
 
What are some of the promising technologies in the pipeline or that have legs for commercialization?
 
In general, I think we are seeing a higher level of technology from our nanotechnology area. We have some interesting surgical devices from our medical school. We’re seeing a lot of stuff in the context of electronics, in the area of chip development, to move information much faster. In biomedical engineering, we have some new promising areas in cardio-imaging, and the way in which heart attacks and the injuries caused in heart attacks can be better characterized. Another one is a spin-off called Medros, which has to do with a new way to screen molecules for treating diabetes and possibly cancer. Those would all be start-up company technologies – the kinds of technologies that are really promising for commercialization. We are seeing the fruits of the work we’ve been doing in some of these opportunities. But on the other side, we are still licensing technologies to large pharmas and biotechs, and suffice to say that most of our business still is in licensing to established companies. This is an area that the BioGenerator and incubators are helping us with – to better distinguish which technologies are better for start-up or licensing opportunities.
 
Another area that makes us unique is this co-directorship situation. My expertise lies in more of the business aspects of what we do; while the legal aspects of what we do, in terms of contracts and patenting, falls more with Mike Marrah. And we are sharing a lot of those responsibilities, which I think is pretty novel in comparison to some other institutions.

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