UVM Professor of Medicine Mercedes Rincon (Photo: COM Design & Photography)
Researchers might make wonderful discoveries in the lab, but if those ideas never reach the clinical arena, they can’t help patients.
With proper training, they could turn those findings into a therapy or treatment for a disease, a method of diagnosis, a medical device or a pharmaceutical product, says Mercedes Rincon, Ph.D., who several years ago discovered a protein that had the potential to advance the treatment of breast cancer, but had no idea how to transfer her idea from the laboratory to the marketplace.
An internationally renowned immunobiologist and University of Vermont professor of medicine, Rincon says she was like many of her College of Medicine colleagues: she knew nothing about the process of developing a product, let alone about starting a company from scratch. Ultimately, the UVM Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) guided Rincon through the process of getting a patent. Importantly, she found expert business partners to move forward with a startup company.
“As scientists, we have not been trained for this,” Rincon says.
But now, the tables have turned. Rincon has first-hand experience with the entrepreneurial side. Her startup company, Mitotherapeutix, is developing her treatment for chemotherapy resistance and another for fatty liver disease. A president and chief executive officer run the company, while she leads the scientific advisory board.
A new $2 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will allow Rincon, along with several UVM colleagues, to provide exactly the type of training scientists like her need and to foster entrepreneurship in biomedical research. The grant comes from the Innovative Programs to Enhance Research Training (IPERT) funding opportunity provided by the National Institute of General Medical Science at NIH. This funding will allow the dissemination of training and culture in biomedical entrepreneurship not only within UVM, but also to academic institutions in other Institutional Development Award (IDeA)-defined states where, like Vermont, exposure to entrepreneurial concepts is limited.
“Few scientists, with varying levels of interest and involvement, have an entrepreneurial personality,” Rincon wrote in her grant proposal.
With support from the new grant, Rincon’s team will build an entrepreneurship training program for academic institutions in six IDeA states: Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Alaska and Puerto Rico. The project will be housed at UVM and linked to the SPARK-VT program, which was launched by the Department of Medicine and has been expanded by the Provost and Vice President for Research to provide seed money to scientists across UVM who want to turn their innovations into commercial ventures.
Rincon’s team at UVM includes Charles Irvin, Ph.D., professor of medicine and associate dean for faculty affairs, who will focus on ethics issues; Erik Monsen, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Grossman School of Business and the Steven Grossman Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship; Tina Thornton, Ph.D., a College of Medicine research associate in immunobiology; and Corine Farewell, D.V.M., director of UVM’s Office of Technology Commercialization.
“Everyone is trying to develop entrepreneurship and generate more small business,” says Rincon, who participated in the launch of SPARK-VT and serves on the program’s steering committee. In biomedical parlance, she adds, the challenge is “how you can move your ideas from bench to bedside.”
Some researchers are uncomfortable with the suggestion of making money from their discovery, viewing the benefit purely for the sake of science, Rincon says. Others might want to pursue a product but don’t have the inclination, confidence or time to figure out the process. With the IPERT grant, Rincon hopes to overcome obstacles like lack of experience, comfort level or business acumen.
“The truth is, if you really care about what you’re doing and if you really think what you’re doing could be helpful to the patient, you have to go through commercialization,” Rincon says.
Under the IPERT grant, the participating institutions will have access to a live stream of all the SPARK workshops that are currently only available via video, and would also allow participants to interact and ask questions. A 10-day summer course in commercialization and innovation will take place at UVM beginning in 2017 and for the following four summers, with each state and Puerto Rico picking five individuals to participate.
The grant will pay to pair researchers with mentors – experts in the business realm of their fields – and provide stipends for scientists to intern at a small business that develops related products.
“Can we make people who never considered themselves entrepreneurs into entrepreneurs?” asks Rincon, sitting in her office next to a chair stacked with plaques of her own patents. “Eventually, it becomes familiar,” she says of the commercialization process. “We have to convince people that they can get into this.”