We like to tout our universities. The academic community is one of the crowning strengths of the New England economy, a major driver of its global impact. But what have universities done for the local business innovation community lately?
Here’s a piece of the puzzle.
Harvard University’s Office of Technology Development has an Accelerator Fund that has been chugging along for four years, with some notable results. As of last month, the $10 million fund had given out $5.2 million in grants, to support more than 30 projects over five annual cycles. It’s still early to add up the returns, but the investment has led to more than $10 million in partnership money for the university, and several start-ups that have received outside venture funding. (The Harvard office declined to give specifics on licensing revenues.)
What’s more, the team is about to begin raising a much bigger fund of $20 million to $30 million. And unlike in the past, when Harvard had laggard’s reputation for commercializing research, universities around the country are starting to look at the school as a possible role model.
The Accelerator Fund was created to help Harvard scientists commercialize their inventions by forming industry partnerships, licensing technology, and starting companies, primarily in the life sciences and biomedical fields.
As Harvard’s technology development head and senior associate provost, Isaac Kohlberg, puts it, “The pipelines of Harvard were empty.’’ The school “suffered from a branding issue with stakeholders about the role of technology development.’’
Kohlberg and his team, which includes Curtis Keith, chief scientific officer of the Accelerator Fund, were brought in to overhaul Harvard’s technology transfer and development offices. Kohlberg joined the university in 2005 and had previously worked at Tel Aviv University and New York University. Keith, who joined in early 2008, cofounded Cambridge-based CombinatoRx (now called Zalicus Inc.)
Looking back on the first four years of the Accelerator program, Kohlberg singles out five important growth factors:
■Its focus on life sciences, which makes up about 60 percent of Harvard research.
■The governance structure for making investment decisions (a small group of people, mostly from industry).
■An internal project management system, including staff to manage grants, projects, and R&D roadmaps.
■The flexibility to perform certain parts of the chosen projects in external contract research organizations, not just in Harvard labs.
■Being integrated with Harvard’s business development program, which includes intellectual property and licensing transactions.
So what kinds of projects have received funding, and what has come of them?
One example: Harvard professor Tobias Ritter’s research on adding fluorine to organic molecules (such as pharmaceutical drugs) to make them more stable, potent, and better able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, was supported in part by the Accelerator Fund. The project turned into a Boston start-up, SciFluor Life Sciences, which has an exclusive license on the technology. In May, SciFluor said it raised a $5 million Series A round from Allied Minds.
Another story involves Proteostasis Therapeutics, a Cambridge drug developer that raised a big venture round in 2008. Its technology, which targets neurodegenerative diseases and other ailments by altering protein homeostasis networks, has roots at the Scripps Research Institute, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and Northwestern University. But Harvard scientists Dan Finley, Randall King, and Alfred Goldberg developed some promising drug compounds and worked with the Harvard tech development office to pursue a licensing deal with Proteostasis. The three Harvard researchers were recently named scientific cofounders of the company.
In May, Proteostasis inked an alliance with the Irish pharmaceutical firm Elan Corp. to develop the drugs.
The big aim of such pharma partnerships, of course, is for “one major drug to come out of it,’’ Kohlberg says.
But a deeper, more scholarly motivation is baked into the Accelerator program as well.
“There is a societal mission inherent in the Accelerator,’’ Kohlberg says. “It goes directly to one of the core missions of the university, public service, what universities are all about.’’
Gregory T. Huang
■San Diego-based Amylin Pharmaceuticals Inc., Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co., and Alkermes Inc., of Waltham, said the Food and Drug Administration has set a deadline of Jan. 28 to complete its review of the newly updated application for exenatide (Bydureon). The companies are seeking clearance to market the product as the first once-weekly injectable medicine in the United States for diabetes patients. The European Union approved the drug in June.
■T2 Biosystems Inc., a Lexington diagnostics technology firm, closed a $23 million Series D financing round led by new investor Aisling Capital. The round included previous investors Flagship Ventures, Polaris Venture Partners, Flybridge Capital Partners, Physic Ventures, Partners Healthcare, Arcus Ventures, RA Capital, Camros Capital, and WS Investments.
The new money will support ongoing development and clinical trials for the company’s diagnostic technology, a benchtop machine T2 says can identify biological substances such as proteins, small molecules, viruses, and DNA much more quickly and cheaply than traditional optical-based machines.
T2 was founded in 2006 by an all-star cast of researchers and business people. John McDonough is chief executive.
This report was compiled by the editors of Xconomy, an online news website focused on the business of technology and innovation. For more New England coverage, visit www.Xconomy.com/boston.