A team of Washington University students on the Medical Campus recently won top honors in the Neuro Startup Challenge, a biotech startup competition designed to commercialize promising brain-related discoveries of scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The team developed a business plan to commercialize a test for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), a nervous system disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. The test
detects whether patients with MS are carriers of a virus that could interact negatively with drugs known to alleviate symptoms of the disease.
“Because there currently isn’t a very effective way to identify carriers of the virus, doctors don’t have a great way of knowing whether their patients will suffer adverse reactions when given monoclonal antibody therapies,” said Washington University team leader Michelle Faits. “Therefore, although these types of therapies are highly effective at treating MS, they aren’t very widely used.”
More than 70 teams competed in the challenge earlier this year and developed business plans to commercialize 13 NIH technologies. The Washington University team was made up of medical student Paul Gamble, and Dana Watt and Faits, who are PhD students in the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences. James Sorrell, a technology project coordinator at the Skandalaris Center, also participated on the team.
The winning teams have the option to launch startups based on their business plans. Heritage Provider Network, which helped sponsor the startup challenge, has pledged to provide seed funding to help groups get their startups up and moving.
The three university students serve as board members for the BioEntrepreneurship Core
, a networking group at Washington University that promotes entrepreneurship and scientific innovation. They credited their success in the competition to faculty members and entrepreneurs in St. Louis who were eager to provide assistance.
“We didn’t have to call people across the country for advice,” said Watt, who studies neuroscience. “We could sit with people face to face and hash things out.”
The students also benefited from the Medical Campus’ proximity to the CORTEX Innovation Community. It’s where they met Harry Arader, an experienced consultant for life sciences startups.
Arader approached the students after hearing them pitch their plan at the HEALTHbio
startup weekend, held earlier this year @4240. He offered to advise the budding entrepreneurs free of charge.
“That was pivotal,” said Faits, who studies developmental biology. “He connected us with a lot of people in the St. Louis biotech scene. We met with a regulatory specialist for advice on guiding products through FDA approval, a serial entrepreneur with extensive experience in medical diagnostic startups and the head of a big genomics company.”
The university’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship gave the team an advantage.
“We had some phenomenal mentors,” said Gamble, who recognized Emre Toker, managing director of the Skandalaris Center, for his personalized attention and School of Medicine faculty for their clinical expertise.
The Center for Advancing Innovation organized the Neuro Startup Challenge and a similar competition in 2014, the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge. Another team of students on the Medical Campus competed and won the breast cancer competition
for a business plan to advance a therapeutic vaccine developed by researchers at the National Cancer Institute.