By Deb Parker, Outlook Magazine | Washington University in St. Louis | October 27, 2021
Moving innovations out of the so-called ivory tower and into the public domain holds enormous power to treat disease and improve quality of life.
But while academic researchers and physicians may imagine promising clinical solutions, some are unprepared to navigate commercialization: pitching themselves, attracting investors, wrangling with intellectual property law, designing rigorous proof-of-concept studies, locating a commercial space and hiring talent.
Taking an idea from the lab bench to market typically spans a decade.
It takes a village to recognize nascent science and get it out into the world. One of the university’s largest Cortex collaborators is BioSTL, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to cultivate bioscience companies. WashU purchased and renovated the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch printing plant at 4340 Duncan Ave. that now houses BioSTL and its office and lab space called BioGenerator Labs. The medical school also provides $1.5 million yearly to support the organization.
This 80,000-square-foot incubator provides affordable space and shared specialty equipment, allowing startups to thrive. “Prior to this, St. Louis had very little in place to help products emerging from research institutions,” said BioGenerator President Eric Gulve. “If you’re thinking about a drug to treat disease, you need access to labs and to people who know how to run a company. The average university professor doesn’t have that skill set.”
BioSTL and BioGenerator Ventures, its investment arm, often provide the crucial first money into a potential startup.
At BioSTL, entrepreneurs also can find mentors, grant-writing support and hiring assistance. “We take PhDs and MDs from WashU and give them a crash course in MBA,” said Maggie Crane, BioSTL communications director.
As research advances, the startup can expand from a single employee to hundreds. WashU startups, such as Arch Oncology and WUGEN, have relocated to larger spaces within the building — keeping their tech and jobs in St. Louis.
The university is particularly interested in attracting businesses to St. Louis. “Our home runs are things like we’ve done with Vir Biotechnology,” Perlmutter said. Longtime medical school faculty member Herbert “Skip” Virgin, MD, PhD, was recruited in 2018 as executive vice president, research and science officer at Vir in San Francisco. Now, the company is basing part of its operation in Cortex. “It is a win for Vir because they have a great pool of talent in the region to draw from and it connects them to WashU,” said J. Gregory Barrett, associate vice chancellor of strategic external projects and outreach on the Medical Campus. “For us, it’s great because it brings a major biotech company to St. Louis and is an example for others who might want to make similar moves.”
WashU is continuing to broaden its net, cultivating national and international industry partners. The goal for most startups is to get bought or, in limited cases, to acquire other companies. This way, faculty can stay involved, turn the business operation over to experts, get discoveries out into the world and pursue other initiatives.
Last year, pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. purchased Disarm Therapeutics, a biotechnology startup founded by WashU researchers Jeffrey Milbrandt and Aaron DiAntonio, MD, PhD, to speed the development of treatments for neurodegenerative conditions. Lilly paid $135 million upfront.
“Disarm Therapeutics had reached the point in the drug development process where we either needed to raise much more funding ourselves or work with a pharmaceutical company with the infrastructure in place to take this technology to the next level,” said Milbrandt, the James S. McDonnell Professor and head of the Department of Genetics.
Up until 20 years ago, large pharma companies led U.S. drug research and development. But pharma companies merged, the industry contracted, and universities took over most early-stage drug discovery.
“Sometimes we have preliminary validation of a lead molecule, but it can be too early for a pharma company to come in because there is still too much uncertainty,” Mercier said. “Startups are a very important piece of a university’s ability to get ‘shots on goal,’ to get partnerships that lead to bigger partnerships.”
In another ongoing collaboration, Sun Pharma Advanced Research Company (SPARC), based in Mumbai, India, secures licensing for WashU-identified small-molecule drug candidates and biologics. It funds preclinical research at WashU and validates the work at its facilities, in compliance with regulatory guidelines, and shares intellectual property with the university. This arrangement gives partners a peek at promising assets and, ultimately, moves the research from lab to clinic.
BioSTL in the Cortex Innovation District is a launch zone for WashU startups. Young businesses often start at a single lab bench in the innovation hub. As they grow, startups such as Arch Oncology, move to larger spaces in the building. | Matt Miller, Washington University in St. Louis