Nurturing biomedical innovation

Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD

Entrepreneurs have been a crucial driving force in America's economy, creating new jobs and sectors of growth. And while there are many examples of tech-savvy entrepreneurs programming the next digital behemoth, the biomedical sciences are no less fertile ground for innovators. However, the path from discovery to commercialization is often more challenging and perilous for biomedicine than for other sectors.

Unlike most ventures, biomedical startup companies face enormous scientific and regulatory challenges before a product can be brought to market. Because lives are at stake, the process of verifying the efficacy and safety of a new pharmaceutical compound, for example, requires extraordinary time, effort and funding. And the risk of failure is extremely high. These uncertain conditions often scare wary investors, no matter how promising the discovery or technology. As a result, many innovations are lost in this "valley of death."

At the University of Chicago Medicine, we're making an effort to bridge this chasm. Our biomedical entrepreneurs have found support at crucial moments in the development of their startups through resources such as the University of Chicago Innovation Fund, which has provided $1.5 million to 23 nascent projects since 2010. The University of Chicago also provides fledgling startups with mentorship and additional funding through other partnerships in the city.

Without these opportunities, startups such as Reflexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. might never have been able to raise $3 million in private funding to create a new class of drugs to treat macular degeneration, a serious deteriorative condition in the eye, and influenza. Co-founded by Stephen Kent, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, Reflexion's "D-protein" therapeutics have the potential to develop into drugs that can be given more easily and in smaller doses leading to fewer side effects.

Quantitative Insights Inc., a startup based on technology developed in the lab of Maryellen Giger, PhD, professor of radiology at the University of Chicago, utilized these entrepreneurial resources toward furthering the development of a computer-aided diagnostic tool to help doctors identify breast cancer earlier. By combining data from X-ray, MRI and ultrasound images into a single platform, the company hopes its technology can prevent misdiagnosed cancers and improve patient management and survival.

The University of Chicago has nurtured and supported our community of biomedical entrepreneurs as they work on projects ranging from compounds to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria to a growth-factor treatment for migraine headaches. Such advances in biomedicine and biotechnology not only improve the quality of life for humans, they generate billions of dollars to the economy and open new frontiers in scientific knowledge.

The "valley of death" is far from conquered, but progress is being made. The announcement of a bioscience startup incubator in April, with the University of Chicago as a founding member through Chicago Innovation Mentors, is a tremendous step.

Government, industry and academia must work together to solve this challenge, and the University of Chicago Medicine will do its part to ensure biomedical innovation thrives in Chicago.

Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD
Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, University of Chicago
Dean, Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Medicine