Texas A&M Health Science Center’s (TAMHSC) faculty members regularly pursue innovative translational research to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing health conditions. However, some of these groundbreaking discoveries do not successfully move from the bench to the bedside because researchers find they have limited training when it comes to commercialization.

Robert C. Alaniz, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, offers his own situation as an example of the challenges faculty face when commercializing their research. “My research colleague and I are unashamed scientists. We think about science every day; we love doing science and we know how to do it very well,” he said. “However, we need to learn more about how to turn our science into a business.”

This challenge among researchers is common. “We have many faculty members who are interested but have not yet been through the process of commercializing a new technology,” said LauraLee Hughes, executive director of TAMHSC’s Office of Technology Translation . “They are not necessarily aware of all the different considerations that they’ll face from a technical, business, regulatory and legal perspective when commercializing a new technology. What we’re trying to do at the HSC is develop programs that help to educate and support our faculty on these different activities.”

Teaching the teachers: Bringing business concepts to researchers

To that end, two TAMHSC research teams spent the summer participating in a Medical Technology Lean Start Up course, which is an innovative and intensive eight-week life sciences program offered through the National Science Foundation I-Corps program. This particular program was offered regionally through a collective partnership between the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, the University of Texas-Austin, Rice University and Texas Tech University.

The I-Corps program provides researchers with real-world, hands-on learning so they can reduce commercialization risks during their company’s early stages. “The I-Corps program is really designed to train faculty members who have promising research on how to commercialize their technology,” Hughes said. “The program essentially provides them with the curriculum, mentors, and resources needed to understand their technology from a commercialization perspective, identify who their customer is and then ultimately map out their plan for commercialization before they actually go through it.”

The program requires each research team to talk to at least 70 primary and secondary customers to determine whether a market exists for their product. Participants also look at other elements of bringing their discovery to market, including assessing the regulatory challenges and identifying the process to begin clinical development and ultimately sale of their product.

Participation in the regional I-Corps program also serves as a launch pad for additional opportunities. For example, the TAMHSC teams can now apply for the national I-Corps program, which would provide additional opportunities to conduct customer research in another region in the United States. These teams also are eligible to receive $50,000 in seed funding for their companies.

Microbiota and chronic conditions

Alaniz and Arul Jayaraman, Ph.D., a Texas A&M professor of chemical engineering, took part in the I-Corps program to learn how to commercialize the discoveries based on their research on the microbiota found in the human gut. Their discoveries have great potential to lead to treatments for a wide range of conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and some forms of cancer.

The pair, who first collaborated in 2010, worked with TAMHSC to cofound Fortis Biosciences in 2013 in order to move their research to market. However, the researchers quickly found they needed more information about the commercialization process and specific customer segments so they applied for the I-Corps program. Other Fortis team members include Hughes, who serves as the industry mentor, and Rani Menon, Ph.D., who performs microbiota research as a post-doctoral fellow in Jayaraman’s lab and is the team’s entrepreneurial lead.

Jaw rehabilitation technology

The second TAMHSC team involved in the I-Corps program is developing a robotic solution for jaw rehabilitation. This device, which is the brain child of Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station graduate assistant Michael Young, performs diagnostics on jaw abnormalities such as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) and then provides targeted therapies.

Young previously worked with Start-Up Aggieland, which is offered through Mays Business School, to begin developing a business plan for his company, Life Motion Technologies. He received seed funding for the endeavor from Mays Business School’s Student Seed Fund and Maroon X Accelerator Program. The team’s participation in the I-Corps program helps drive the next steps for commercialization. The team includes: Lynne Opperman, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical science at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, who participates as the team’s industry mentor; Raktim Bhattacharya, Ph.D., a Texas A&M associate professor in aerospace engineering, who serves as the team’s principal investigator; and Ritesh Bhattacharjee, a graduate student in Texas A&M’s School of Public Health, who works with Young as the team’s entrepreneurial lead.

Learning on several levels

Both TAMHSC teams already see multiple benefits from participating in the program. In the near term, teams are uncovering critical information that can hamper their entrance into the marketplace. For instance, the Fortis team refined their plans several times based on the data coming from the I-Corp’s interviews. The researchers learned that their initially identified customer base was not interested in changing their medication, even though proven long-term side effects exist with the currently available drugs. However, these interviews also identified an unmet need in an emerging market of patients with a specific condition who don’t qualify for or can’t afford currently available therapies, thus opening up new avenues for commercialization.

Participants also leave the I-Corps program with important knowledge and tools that they can share in their classrooms and laboratories. “I wanted to participate in the program because I believe my students have an interesting technology,” Opperman said. “I also wanted to learn the I-Corp process for product development and commercialization so that I could mentor others at the Baylor College of Dentistry.”

Participation in the I-Corps program also helps researchers think about funding options for the work they do in the laboratory. “Understanding when one’s research has commercial potential and being able to participate in the intellectual property development and commercialization process makes faculty more valuable to their institutions and gives them opportunities to set up collaborations with industry,” Opperman said. “These collaborations can lead to alternate funding sources at a time when smaller and smaller numbers of grants submitted to regular federal funding agencies are being funded.”

Ultimately, the I-Corps program may help improve the quality of the research being produced by TAMHSC researchers. “Participating in this program has made us less naive and more aware of all aspects of product development, not just the creation of a device or drug,” Opperman said. “I believe this program has made our research approach more comprehensive and robust.”

The TAMHSC teams still have work to do after the I-Corps regional program ends. “Our expectation is that these teams will continue the customer discovery process and utilize that information to further develop the business model for their technology or start-up,” Hughes said. “Furthermore, we hope that the information they have gained from the I-Corps experience will position them to be more competitive when seeking funding to continue development of their respective technologies.”

— Dorian Martin

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