NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – A Bay Area research hub is launching a new fellowship program for freshly minted PhDs with an entrepreneurial streak. The Innovative Genomics Institute, a shared resource for genome editing research at the University of California, Berkeley and UC San Francisco, says it's the first so-called "super-postdoc" program of its kind, where launching a biotech startup, rather than their own lab, is the intended result.
Today, the IGI announced the first class of its Entrepreneurial Fellows program, consisting of two researchers at UC-Berkeley. Modeled after existing fellowships like UCSF's Sandler Fellows, Princeton University's Lewis-Sigler Fellows, and the Whitehead Institute Fellows, the IGI intends to provide a launch pad for promising young scientists with the chops to pursue independent research. But rather than set up fellows for a career in academia, the program is aiming to set them up to spinout their technology into the commercial biotech world.
Backed by an anonymous private donor, IGI will provide up to $250,000 per year for two years, with additional support available on a limited per-case basis. In addition to funding, the fellows will receive tailored business training and mentorship through UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), and other organizations.
Alex Schultink, a postdoc with a doctoral degree in plant biology, will work on engineering disease resistance in plants.
Benjamin Oakes, a grad student in the labs of UC-Berkeley Professors Jennifer Doudna and David Savage, will work on creating consistent, replicable methods for gene replacement, with potential applications in human gene therapy and ag-bio.
"Programs like this simply don't exist anywhere else," Doudna, who is also the executive director of the IGI, said in a statement. "I've seen brilliant ideas that fizzle out because startup companies just can't break into the competitive biotechnology scene. With more time to develop their ideas and technology, our fellows will have the head start needed to earn the confidence of investors."
When Oakes, 28, heard about the IGI's plans, he jumped at the chance to pursue a position that would also nurture his interest in the biotech industry. As a protein engineer who has worked on several targeted genome-editing technologies, including CRISPR/Cas9, he's already been listed as an inventor on a patent application for a method to edit a single-stranded oligonucleotide. All the while, he's fed a growing appreciation for business, taking classes at Hass and in Berkeley's industrial engineering department.
"I've started to see business as a method that's going to allow us to push science forward at a faster rate," he said. But he's also had his sights set on a super-postdoc from the beginning, crediting Princeton's fellows program for giving him his start in science.
Coming out of Colby College, a tiny liberal arts institution in Waterville, Maine, Oakes landed a job as a technician in the also tiny lab of Lewis-Sigler Fellow Marcus Noyes, now a professor at New York University. "That was an amazing experience for me," Oakes said. "It was me, him, and one other technician — that was the whole lab. I had to learn everything, top to bottom." It was a high-stress environment, but Oakes said he fed on the immediacy. It was the perfect training ground for someone who didn't have access to the same lab infrastructure as an undergraduate. "If you didn't do it, it wasn't going to get done. Ever since then I've been looking at these sorts of fellows positions."
For the right person, like Oakes, the IGI program is a good fit, situated between the fellowships meant to jumpstart an academic lab and industry-sponsored postdocs at places like Genentech or the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research, said Alan Frankel, the chair of UCSF's own Sandler Fellows program and a former Whitehead Fellow.
"It's a nice complement to the existing fellows programs for those that have the entrepreneurial bend to them," he said. "It sounds unique."
The IGI program is not quite on par with the scale of the other super-postdoc programs, which have been springboards for star researchers like the Broad Institute's Eric Lander (Whitehead Fellow), Whitehead's David Sabatini (Whitehead Fellow), and Stanford University's Julie Theriot (Sandler Fellow). And despite the fanfare, IGI hasn't committed fully to the program beyond the first class.
"We will be evaluating the program on an ongoing basis," an IGI spokesperson said in an email, noting that the institute has other philanthropic supporters, in addition to the private donor underwriting the EFP, who may be interested in funding future fellows.
Both Sandler and Whitehead Fellows are guaranteed funding for around five years, although many don't stay the entire term. But with up to $500,000, the IGI funding is generous; Frankel said the amount available to Sandler Fellows that stay the full five-year term is also on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars and that fellows are encouraged to seek additional funding. The National Institutes of Health offered 16 grants to early-stage, independent researchers in 2016.
While the potential to launch a spinout is not considered when choosing fellows, Frankel said that fellows, like faculty, are not discouraged.
Whitehead Fellows are offered similar terms, Nicole Rura, a Whitehead Institute public information officer, said. In addition to monetary funding, which is allocated differently to each fellow, Whitehead provides lab space and mentorship. She noted that the Whitehead has its own tech transfer staff and resources.
Though it doesn't offer structured programs for budding entrepreneurs, Rura pointed to one notable success story. During his fellowship, Thijn Brummelkamp, now at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, engineered a sustainable haploid cell line that enabled simplified gene knockout studies. He founded the cell line engineering firm Haplogen Genomics, which was acquired by Horizon Discovery in 2015 for £6.0 million ($9.1 million).
At IGI, commercialization will be more than just tolerated. Still, an equal focus will be on supporting a small lab for independent research. "You're not supposed to have a product in a year," Oakes said. "That would be extremely interesting, but we're still doing some basic, exploratory research."
For Oakes, that means developing methods that will allow us to edit the genetic code in a more cut-and-paste manner. "The question is, 'How can we enable genomic repair and not just genomic deletion?'" he said. The support from IGI will allow him to pursue high-throughput studies to find ways to nudge cell repair mechanisms towards homology-directed repair, which favors gene insertion, over non-homologous end-joining, which favors gene knockout.
Jacob Corn, an expert on CRISPR/Cas9 and homology-directed DNA repair and scientific director at the IGI, laid out the commercial potential for Oakes' project: "An upgraded system for introducing new genetic material would benefit genome editing research in all areas," he said. "This is the sort of cross-cutting technology that could revolutionize everything from disease treatment to engineering plants, livestock, and microbes."
But that's still a ways away, if Oakes is lucky enough to get there at all. For now, he has a more pressing concern : he still needs to graduate.