Traditionally the American stronghold of National Institute of Health (NIH) funding, the economy for life science and biomedical research is changing in response to more competition for fewer resources, mostly because of the NIH budget cuts. Over the last year, we’ve seen the big academic hospitals pivoting, energizing innovation, encouraging scientists to be better and smarter with the existing resources. Today was a first for Boston academic hospitals–bringing American capitalism at its finest to the table that traditionally only PhDs occupied. Today was The Brigham Research Institute Shark Tank, where they offered four seed grants of $50,000 each to support innovative research. Nearly 70 applicants competed in two rounds of rigorous scientific review by BWH faculty, and eight finalists were invited to the true Shark Tank-style pitch off.
The ever popular and somewhat controversial ABC’s Kevin O”Leary, aka Mr. Wonderful, known for his love of his Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) physicians and short temper for naivete, moderated this unusual pitch-off competition, where other non-traditional judges also participated. The traditional intellects were present and judging– including co-host Christine Seidman, MD, Director of The Brigham Research Institute; Bruce Kristal, PhD, Associate Professor of the Department of Neurosurgery; Duane Wesemann, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of the Department of Medicine, and so on. But, Oh my, Brigham, who else? There was Richard Anders, Founder and Executive Director of Mass Medical Angels, a seed stage investor group with exclusive focus on life science and healthcare investments; Todd Dagres, Founder and General Partner of Spark Capital, which manages approximately $1,500,000,000 across four funds and is currently investing Spark IV, a $450,000,000 fund raised in 2013; Laurie Keating, Senior Vice President of Millennium Pharmaceuticals: The Takeda Oncology Company, where she manages the company’s legal, intellectual property, and corporate quality strategies and priorities; and Bill Geary, Partner of Foundation Medical Partners, which actively manages over $200 million in venture capitol, with a market capitalization of healthcare investments totaling over $2 billion.
Clearly, with these players at the table, the scientists must have guessed that the rules were different now. Mr. Wonderful himself helped us out by giving the crowd his version of the successful scientist/entrepreneur to fund. They are as follows:
Wow, that’s intense. When’s the last time you heard a scientist who was able to present their research in the 45 minutes allotted for Grand Rounds?! Well, today, it was tough–they had ONLY 5 minutes. AND, traditionally meak and modest scientists aren’t walking away with the money. You have to be upfront and know your end game in this new economy. One of the lucky $50K winners, Ben Humphreys, MD, PhD, told MedTech Boston, “You know, I wasn’t initially going to say that my goal was to find drugs to cure kidney and lung fibrosis. But after hearing Mr. O’Leary, I changed my pitch. I said to myself, ‘This is what these guys want to know.'”
I must say, Mr. O’Leary was a little harsh even for my sensibilities in his take-no-prisoners attitude to running a successful company. But I must concede that though I’ve never been to B-school, Mr. O’Leary echoed the same point that Founder and Managing Partner of Farpoint Ventures, James Ryan, always harps on–SALES. Mr. O’Leary told the crowd, “When I’m looking into a company, I don’t talk to the CEO. I go straight to the sales team. The sales team knows what the customer likes and doesn’t like about the product well before anyone else in the company knows. The sales team knows what money is coming in and out and knows the quarter before anyone else.” Perhaps also a little controversial, Mr. O’Leary emphasized, “The sales team should be compensated for sales. I WANT them to make more than the CEO.” So then it makes sense for Mr. O’Leary’s four tenants of a successful business to be the following:
Okay my founding member entrepreneurs, that #4 is going to be a little hard to stomach.
Being a nephrologist myself, I was particularly interested in the first pitch by Dr. Krisztina Fischer, “The Beauty of the Bubble: A Novel Way to Save Patients from Kidney Failure in the ICU.” Essentially, Dr. Fischer has a new ultrasound technique with a seemingly super safe dye and a special algorithm that can screen acute kidney injury early in the ICU stay. Pretty cool, novel, and perhaps Dr. Fischer will also find other applications in science. But perhaps her downfall, and it was definitely tricky to go first, was when one of the Investor Sharks asked, “How will this change management? Will this be able to prevent kidney failure? If so, how much money will you save from preventing kidney failure? Will this get the patient out of the ICU earlier?” The answer, “I’m not sure.” As scientists, we actually don’t ask these questions of ourselves enough. America’s money is not unlimited. We have to have sustainable business models for our research. Does this put Brigham one step ahead of the game–pushing their scientists to be the most nimble in their pivots?
Who were the winners in this new economy and why?
Aditi Hazra, PhD, won with “In Situ Genomic, Healthcare, and Treatment (INIGHT) Consortia for Prevention of DCIS Overtreatment.” First, she used the word “Disrupt.” That’s a hot word in innovation these days. She tells the crowd that she is going to DISRUPT overtreatment because “1-3 deaths occur from overtreatment for every 1 breast cancer death avoided.” Wow! With breast cancer being the second leading cause of cancer death for women, this is a BIG DEAL. So for every 1 woman we save, we then kill another woman with overtreatment?! Second, Dr. Hazra actually used the term “Return on Investment (ROI).” One Investor shark told the scientists, “You can’t be scared about talking about ROIs. VCs want to know ROIs. The American taxpayers want to have good ROIs.” Dr. Hazra tells the group that the 10-year ROI on a $50K investment in her and epidemiology and prevention has the potential to “preserve health for the 530,000 DCIS patients by enhancing personalized chemoprevention and avoiding carcinogenic and cardiotoxic radiation treatment.”
Benjamin Humphreys, MD, PhD, won with “Targeting Fibrosis: New Therapiest for Heart Failure and Chronic Kidney Disease.” Essentially, Dr. Humphreys tells us that heart failure and chronic kidney disease are both caused by fibrosis. You can see fibrosis. You can touch it. But no one knows what causes it, UNTIL NOW. The Humphreys lab says they knows the cause. And they are planning to make drugs to treat it. Wow. They know something new and novel, and they have a commercializable game plan!
Jeff Karp, PhD, won with “Changing the Landscape of Inflammatory Bowel Disease through Controlling Gut Bacteria.” So I understood this the least. I apologize if the science is wrong. It sounds like growing intestinal stem cells is extremely valuable because they can be used to develop new drugs that treat all types of gastrointestinal disease, from Crohn’s to Ulcerative Colitis. Scientists have been able to isolate the stem cells, but not control the growth, until now, with Dr. Karp’s particular manipulation of the Paneth cells. Great, another novel invention with a clear path to commercialization and lives saved!
Finally, Tracy Young-Pearse, PhD, won with “Why are some brain regions resistant to Alzheimer’s Disease.” Mr. O’Leary called Dr. Young-Pearse the overlooked winner (because the crowd of scientists did not predict her win). Okay, by this time, my blood sugar was pretty low at 2pm, and I wasn’t paying attention to the science. But come on, she’s proposing fixing Alzheimer and aging. The American public wants to age more gracefully.
Congratulations to all the great researchers and scientists. You are stepping up to the challenge of the new economy with different resources and rules. And did we notice, but you’re playing with venture capitalists now. Is it surprising that if the judges are wearing svelte black suits, then the chosen winners were also dressed similarly. Is this the end of wearing white lab coats to lunch meetings?
My passion is healthcare optimization, whether that is with innovation, making scientific discoveries, or improving delivery. I love bringing people and ideas together and making projects work. With this, medicine exists to improve lives, and I will strive to always help patients and those around me.
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