Betting on Biomedical Ventures
Imagine a protein-based biomaterial that would accelerate wound healing for trauma patients or soldiers injured in war. Or how about tools focused on the early detection and prevention of some of the deadliest forms of cancer, novel agents that can protect stem cells and promote survival of those cells into a diseased tissue or organ, or a vibrational vest engineered for patients suffering from chronic airway diseases like cystic fibrosis?
The list of cutting-edge innovations currently being developed by researchers, clinicians, faculty and students in the Texas Medical Center is vast—and their potential to revolutionize health care and advance quality of life is endless. Yet despite their promise, the majority of these products will never make it out of the lab and into the hospital room, battlefield or home.
“You can have the best idea in the world for a new device or drug that could really transform the industry, really help patients, but you also have to know how to make a profit. The reality is that you can’t have your product out there if it can’t survive in the market—that’s the primary reason many of these great ideas are failing. Understanding product development is vital,” said Stanley J. Watowich, Ph.D., associate professor for the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the Sealy Center for Structural Biology and Sealy Center for Vaccine Development at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB).
Watowich is also the director of UTMB’s Collaborative Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program—a UT System-funded initiative designed specifically to help biotech pioneers keep their products alive in the ever-increasingly complex and competitive marketplace.
Launched in 2014 in collaboration with the University of Texas McCombs School of Business in Austin, the Rice University Bioengineering Department, and successful entrepreneurs and leaders in the biotechnology and biomedical field, the program provides an in-depth understanding of the pathway to commercializing great ideas and creating successful startup companies and biotechnology ventures.
The program currently supports two courses: “Successful Entrepreneurship,” geared towards established biomedical professionals in the Texas Medical Center, on UT campuses, and at all Texas institutions, and “BioVentures,” which is set up as a mentorship program for TMC graduate and medical students.
The professional course runs 12 weeks and is administered primarily via online resources and forums.
“We wanted this to be as flexible as possible because all of our participants in that course have full-time jobs. We don’t want them to have to stop their clinical practice because they are trying to learn how to get their ideas out there,” explained Watowich.
In contrast, the BioVentures course, targeted at medical students, residents and postdocs, is an immersive course in which teams of students work with local successful entrepreneurs to develop a startup company and strategic business plan that can convert a patent-protected idea into a commercial product. Students take the lead in developing and running this course.
“Both classes require participants to develop a plan that will bring an idea to the biomedical market—and defend how this plan produces a viable company,” Watowich said. “It’s complex and involves understanding how a patent works, navigating the regulatory pathways and the FDA, researching how to get ideas to the market, and conducting primary market research to determine if there even is a market for their proposed product. The goal is to help individuals make decisions to either start a company with their ideas or help them re-work their ideas into something that will be successful in the market. We want to make sure we are helping people move ideas forward— even if that means allowing them to fail quickly so they can regroup before investing too many resources.”
The outcomes of both classes are the same, with each student leaving the course with an executive summary of a business plan and an idea of what their next steps will be. All of it culminates in one final event known as “pitch day”—a graduation of sorts where the men and women behind the ideas pitch their venture to a room full of Texas-based entrepreneurs and investors.
“The pitch includes their product overview, the risks involved, the financial backing needed to achieve defined milestones, and what they expect to accomplish in the first year or two—all delivered within the space of about eight minutes,” Watowich said. “It’s a chance to get some initial exposure, and more importantly, real-world feedback.”
The program was recently granted additional funding to add new resources based on recommendations from recent graduates. By Summer 2015, three additional components will be offered, including one-on-one opportunities for new companies to work with McCombs Business School faculty to create a detailed strategic business plan, a course geared specifically toward regulatory training and navigating the FDA, and individualized mentorship training to write successful proposals for non-dilutive funding.
“We’re trying to develop an ecosystem to increase the number of companies being formed and also the likelihood that those companies will attract early seed-funding necessary for success,” Watowich said. “Then, these startups could be ready to go into accelerators and incubators like TMCx or JLABS with a strong business plan and some outside money. In the biotech industry, only about one in 100 companies ever goes on to make significant profit—we’re hoping to give these Texas-based ventures much better odds than that.”
The program’s inaugural courses last year produced four early-stage ventures, and as of 2015, UTMB has opened the program to all University of Texas campuses across the system. Watowich says their ultimate goal is to offer the course to anyone in Texas with a viable biotech idea—no matter their organizational affiliation.
“Even though this program is funded through the UT System, we are targeting any institution in the Texas Medical Center, and moving forward, any organization across Texas,” Watowich said. “We want to elevate as many startups as possible and increase everyone’s knowledge so the entire state can benefit.”