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Bridging the Gap from Discovery to Commercialization

Nowadays, you can’t talk research discoveries without discussing technology commercialization. But how many people are familiar with the business of the translation of science?

The role of technology transfer is to facilitate bringing new technologies to the marketplace by exchanging knowledge and scientific discoveries between academia and industry. For Wistar, this means working closely with our scientists and external partners to advance promising and commercially viable scientific breakthroughs in cancer, infectious disease and vaccine research to the private sector and ultimately to patients.

Sounds easy? Not at all.

It entails building and leveraging a dedicated support network of drug discovery and development experts, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, contract research organizations, economic development partners, government, start-ups, entrepreneurs, investors, and most importantly, Wistar scientists.

“Quite simply, we are matchmakers.” This is how Heather Steinman, Ph.D., MBA, Wistar’s vice president of business development and executive director of technology transfer, describes the work of her team. “We put the right people together towards the common objective of translating our important Wistar discoveries into potentially new therapeutic and diagnostic technologies through meaningful partnerships.”

Steinman recognizes that there is a major divide between academic discoveries and pharmaceutical products, and she works to find partners that are willing to take on the high risk and high costs associated with advancing early stage discoveries.

“Researchers are focused on pushing the boundaries of scientific exploration and getting exciting experimental results that are suitable for publication in high-impact scientific journals, and they may not always be focused on the commercial potential of their results,” said Steinman. “Profit-driven companies are focused on meeting market demands without incurring significant risks along the way and as such may be disinclined to invest in a project if it is too early in the development continuum. Our job is to help merge the perspectives of both parties to shift the overall focus towards a common goal, which in the long run will translate into creating impact from Wistar research. Ultimately, the scope of our work is to push Wistar discoveries out of the ‘valley of death,’ where many promising therapeutics and technologies often fail.”

“The valley of death” is jargon for the gap that exists between early research and its translation into marketable products. This funding chasm happens because public grants fund basic research and industry money supports more ‘mature’ technology, shying away from potentially viable product ideas that are in their infant state. Other factors are the lack of technical expertise for drug development in academic institutions and a high risk of failure that discourages investors — out of 10,000 molecules that enter the drug development pipeline, 250 move on to preclinical research, only five advance to phase I trials, and just one makes it through FDA approval.

“We seek out strategies to make promising research projects attractive to external partners,” adds Steinman.

When the technology transfer process is successful, it results in the creation of new collaborations and licensing agreements with new or established companies, generating licensing income for the inventors and Wistar and furthering the development of research discoveries into licensed products.

“At Wistar, we have our own way of doing business development and technology transfer,” said Gayle Burstein-Teitelbaum, Ph.D., senior licensing and business development associate. “Because we are a nimble, independent institute, we can afford to dedicate time and resources to proactively scan the research projects that are close to publication for technology transfer opportunities. Our streamlined, interactive and collaborative process with inventors is often unattainable in larger institutions that rely solely on more passive technology transfer processes.”

Ultimately, successful technology transfer means that new therapeutics and diagnostics may one day become available to patients because of collaborations established today between Wistar’s researchers and industry partners. In turn, this process generates important revenues that will support future research and discoveries, creating a virtuous cycle of transformative basic research and technology commercialization.