Harvard University has received a $50 million gift from businessman and alumnus Len Blavatnik to support a major initiative aimed at bridging the “valley of death” — the gap between basic biomedical research and the emergence of new therapies for patients.
The gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, slated to be announced Monday, is one of the largest individual gifts to the university in recent years.
It is especially welcome because it comes as researchers are being squeezed by cuts in federal funding. Harvard Medical School announced last week that economic pressures led it to shut down its half-century old primate research facility in Southborough.
“This is really, really meaningful in this context, as we’ve all confronted or are challenged by the sequester,” said Isaac T. Kohlberg, chief technology development officer at Harvard. “This is very, very powerful fuel for the research engine of the university.”
The gift will be used to support grants to researchers from across Harvard. The money will also launch a fellowship at Harvard Business School to support life science entrepreneurship among the students there, increasing their exposure to technologies and basic research. Blavatnik attended Harvard Business School and founded Access Industries, an international company with investments in natural resources, media and telecommunications, and real estate.
“By increasing the collaborative efforts between Harvard Business School and Harvard’s scientific community, we will empower the next generation of life science entrepreneurs and provide a further catalyst for innovation and research development,” Blavatnik said in a statement. He was not available for an interview.
In 2005, Harvard shifted the focus of its Office of Technology Development to development and entrepreneurship. Since then, its biomedical accelerator fund has supported 37 projects; about half of those are being developed further, through partnerships with companies.
Greg Verdine, a Harvard chemistry professor, said that accelerator funding helped bring a project in his laboratory to the point where several pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest.
Verdine has been developing a new class of drugs intended to address a major problem for drug developers: Traditional drug molecules are incapable of binding a vast number of attractive targets. The work has led to early versions of two experimental drugs — one that targets proteins linked to tumor development and another that could be a diabetes treatment.
Vicki Sato, a Harvard Business School professor who has also worked at major biotechnology companies, said the initiative truly fills a need.
Sato said research findings that come out of academic laboratories are often less robust than the ones companies need to develop biomedical insight toward a product.
The funds given out through the accelerator program, she said, will allow researchers to take some of the extra steps to advance research to the point where an industry partner or biotech start-up could move it toward a possible therapy.
“Harvard has been criticized, in the past, compared to our neighbors down to the river of being more of a knowledge for knowledge’s sake university,” Sato said.