Guest post by Kayt Sukel
Late last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) partnered with the Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI), a non-profit group specializing in technology transfer, and the Heritage Provider Network, a California-based healthcare provider, to bring some of the NIH’s most promising brain-based technologies to market via a contest: the Neuro Start-Up Challenge. More than 70 entrepreneurial teams participated in this crowd-sourced competition, working through multiple phases—including an Internet vote open to the public—to convince the event’s organizers and judges that they should be the trusted start-up venture to help the commercialization of one of sixteen innovative inventions.
On May 21, the Neuro Start-Up Challenge announced thirteen winners based on their pitches and business plans, who will now move forward to a final phase to launch their businesses. The inventions include tools to diagnose, predict, and treat diseases and improve brain health. Winners included teams hailed from universities like Tulane, Johns Hopkins, and Duke.
“These teams needed to have not only a novel idea but a viable plan that would give us the confidence that they’d be able to deliver,” says Joseph Conrad, a technology transfer specialist with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and a competition judge. “Some of these teams really went the extra mile. One team even went so far as to get an orphan drug designation for their compound, which offers some development incentives. It showed an innovative approach—and showed how serious they were about structuring themselves to move forward and get subsequent funding and the licensing required for their company.”
Rosemarie Truman, CEO of CAI and one of the competition’s founders, says each team will receive a $2500 grant from the Heritage Provider Network and mentoring from CAI as they incorporate, seek funding, apply for licensing, handle regulatory requirements, and do the other nitty-gritty work to get their companies off the ground. “We are really fostering the next generation of entrepreneurs so they can develop and commercialize these different brain-related inventions,” says Truman. “Each team still has a great deal of work ahead of them. But by participating in this challenge, they’ve really put themselves in a great position to enter the market and be successful.”
Conrad says the competition’s goal, to facilitate access to technologies discovered in basic science research, has been well met—so much so that the team is already brainstorming future challenge competitions.
“We are working on a cancer-focused nanotechnology challenge next, which will source inventions from anywhere in the world. But we are hoping to expand this model beyond NIH. We hope that other federal laboratories will use this kind of challenge as a model,” he says. “There are so many things you can begin to consider when you recognize the power of crowd-sourcing. It becomes a very powerful mechanism to do technology transfer work—and get some pretty amazing inventions out to market that might not have otherwise gotten there.”