NIH and Center for Advancing Innovation Launch Neuro Start-Up Challenge

Guest post by Kayt Sukel

The mission of the National Institutes of Health is to “seek fundamental knowledge and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.” But the vast majority of research projects funded by NIH, despite their viability as potential treatments, won’t make it to clinical trials or commercial development because it lacks the money.

“You have to understand that the research that comes out of the NIH are very early stage projects—we’re a basic research discovery kind of organization,” says Thomas Stackhouse, associate director of the National Cancer Institute’s Technology Transfer Center. “So it’s very hard to get pharmaceutical companies or other organizations to partner around those discoveries no matter how promising they may be. The risk is just too high. But if we could create a start-up that can take one of these opportunities and run with it through some of the initial studies, it may be a good model to bring many more of these innovative technologies to market.”

To do so, NIH has partnered with two groups, the Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI), a non-profit group that spurs technology transfer, and the Heritage Provider Network, a California-based healthcare provider network, to sponsor the Neuro Start-Up Challenge. The challenge uses a crowd-sourced competition to find the best start-up companies to exploit some of the institutes’ most promising brain-related discoveries.

Rosemarie Truman, founder and CEO of CAI, and colleagues identified sixteen potential inventions for licensing, including promising therapeutics, diagnostics, devices, and methods to treat brain cancer, traumatic brain injury, attention deficit disorder, and other neuro disorders. All are inventions, she argues, with the potential to help a lot of people—if the right team will take a chance on them.

For the challenge, multi-disciplinary start-up teams consisting of a seasoned entrepreneur as well as people with medical, scientific, and legal expertise—all the capabilities that are required for a successful fledgling organization—will compete to take one of the 16 inventions to market. Each team will create a two-minute video “elevator speech,” and a 350-word pitch outlining why they are the team to take the invention to market. Those two items will be posted on the challenge site, for one week, January 12–16, everyone online can vote for the ones they think sound best. From there, teams will be whittled down during successive phases; winners will be announced April 17.

The challenge currently has 72 teams on board—with nearly 600 people participating from universities, business schools, consultancies, research institutes, and hospitals from around the globe. And Joseph Conrad, a technology transfer specialist with the National Cancer Institute, is optimistic that many technologies that may have died in the lab will now have the chance for commercial development—and to help more people.

“NIH is committed to public health and we do the best we can to make sure the public has access to the fascinating and wonderful technologies we create. This challenge helps us do that by giving us a new vehicle to get those technologies out in the world,” he says. “We’re using every means necessary to get better public health out there—and, in doing so, stimulate the economy and improve overall American living. And I think that’s something that all of us should support.”

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