Success of Breast Cancer Startup Challenge Inspires Second Challenge

Thomas Stackhouse, Joseph Conrad, and Michele Newton, Rosemarie Truman
The neuro Start Up Challenge logo

By Thomas Stackhouse, Joseph Conrad, and Michele Newton, Contributing Writers, and Rosemarie Truman, Guest Writer

Sixty-one teams have been accepted into, and are now competing in, the Neuro Startup Challenge, a new collaboration established by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with The Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI) and Heritage Provider Network, Inc.

The Neuro Startup Challenge is the second of its kind and is modeled after the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge (BCSC), which was conceived through a partnership between NCI, CAI, and the Avon Foundation for Women to accelerate the process of bringing emerging breast cancer technologies to market and to stimulate the creation of start-up businesses around the inventions. 

The Breast Cancer Startup Challenge Established the Model

The BCSC, established in 2013, comprised nine patented technologies from NCI and one from an Avon-funded research facility that were judged as having great promise for advancing breast cancer research in addition to being appropriate for startups. Teams of business, legal, medical/scientific, and engineering specialists, computer science students, seasoned entrepreneurs, and other industry professionals competed by creating business plans, giving live sales pitches, and making elevator speeches focused on developing and commercializing the inventions.

In March 2014, the challenge winners and finalists launched their startups, and began to raise funds and negotiate a license for their inventions. As a result of the BCSC, more than 270 challenge competitors received start-up and entrepreneurship training, 10 breast cancer–related inventions are being advanced, and 11 startups have been launched.

Three of the start-up companies that have been granted exclusive licenses to the NCI technology include Mesopharm (Mitchell Ho, Ph.D., Laboratory of Molecular Biology, NCI Center for Cancer Research [CCR], inventor, Human Monoclonal Antibody–Based Cancer Therapy); Orpheden (Alan Krensky, M.D., formerly NCI, inventor, Immunotherapy Using Granulysin-Activated Monocytes); and Oncolinx (Nadya Tarasova, Ph.D., Cancer and Inflammation Program, NCI CCR, inventor, Anti-Cancer Toxin).

In November 2014, the BCSC was awarded with an Excellence in Technology Transfer Award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer (FLC) Mid-Atlantic Region. In July 2014, the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Sylvia Burwell, recognized the BCSC with a Secretary’s Pick Award in the HHS Innovates competition, which celebrates inventive new ideas in support of the HHS mission.

The Neuro Startup Challenge Expands the Model

Given its promising initial results, the BCSC template is now being applied systematically as a model for advancing NIH-licensable technologies and helping to create start-up companies. The Neuro Startup Challenge, which centers around 16 unlicensed brain-related inventions from multiple NIH institutes, was launched using an enhanced version of the BCSC framework.

In this new challenge, 61 teams comprising graduate-level medical and business students and postdocs, as well as seasoned entrepreneurs, will compete to create strategic business plans and launch startups to develop and commercialize the inventions.

NCI Technologies Competing in the New Challenge

NCI technologies that have been accepted into the Neuro Startup Challenge include: A Brain Cancer–Specific Target That Can Be Used in Diagnostics and Potentially Therapeutic Applications (Zheng-Gang Liu, Ph.D., Laboratory of Genitourinary Cancer Pathogenesis, NCI CCR, inventor); A Tumor Diagnostic Marker for New Blood Vessels’ Formation That Can Be Used for Early Detection of Brain Tumors (Brad St. Croix, Ph.D, Mouse Cancer Genetics Program, NCI CCR, inventor); and InvNovel Synthetic Analogues of Schweinfurthin A for the Treatment of Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (Karlyne Reilly, Ph.D., Genetic Modifiers of Tumorigenesis Section, NCI CCR, and John Beutler, Ph.D., Molecular Targets Laboratory, NCI CCR, inventors).

CAI is continuing its partnership role in this new challenge, and Heritage Provider Network is engaged as a philanthropic partner.

Challenge Platform Offers Many Advantages

According to the Core Challenge Planning Team from the Technology Transfer Center, NCI at Frederick, and CAI, the challenge platform offers a number of significant advantages to advancing technology, including:

  • Creating a new model to help accelerate and simultaneously transfer multiple federal inventions to the marketplace where they can have an opportunity to positively impact public health
  • Establishing a collaboration between the best minds and ideas from the federal, private, academic, and entrepreneurial arenas to accomplish a common goal
  • Creating a competition whose outcome has the potential to stimulate economic growth and create jobs
  • Providing an excellent platform to help postdocs and graduate students learn “the business of science” 
  • Providing an opportunity to help train and motivate the next generation to meet our agency’s mission, which, in this case, involves the training of scientists and entrepreneurs who will take us to the next milestones in NCI’s journey to improve life for those who suffer from cancer
  • Providing a new model for venture philanthropy – Avon viewed the challenge as an opportunity to strategically invest in, and offer support to, a program with the potential to advance multiple breast cancer–related inventions

The Neuro Startup Challenge provides the opportunity to help accelerate and increase the volume of advancements for brain-related health concerns by building on the unique framework created with the BCSC. The challenge concept is designed to serve as a model for institutionalizing the practice of spinning off inventions across HHS and other federal labs.

For more information, please visit the Neuro Startup Challenge or the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge website.

Rosemarie Truman is founder and chief executive officer, Center for Advancing Innovation.

The Breast Cancer Startup Challenge was recognized with a Secretary’s Pick Award at the HHS Innovates Award Ceremony in July 2014. From left: Thomas Stackhouse, Ph.D., associate director, NCI Technology Transfer Center (TTC); Karen Maurey, director, NCI TTC; Animesh Shukla, CAI; Rosemarie Truman, founder and CEO, CAI; Jonathan Liu, CAI; Li Gwatkin, NCI Office of Communications; Bill Corr, deputy secretary, HHS; Sylvia Burwell, secretary of HHS;  James Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., director, NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives; Jennifer Wong, technology licensing specialist, NIH Office of Technology Transfer (OTT); Michele Newton, marketing specialist, NCI TTC; Youhong Wang, CAI; Richard Rodriguez, director, NIH OTT; and John Hewes, Ph.D., technology transfer specialist, NCI TTC. Photo courtesy of Christopher Smith, ASPA.