Kendall Squared brings you dispatches from the world’s epicenter for biotechnology and drug discovery.
It wasn’t all that long ago that academic researchers raised some eyebrows if they tried to commercialize their work while keeping their faculty posts.
“There was a sense that academics did research for purely intellectual reasons and to advance the field,” said Tyler Jacks, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
MIT has long been more accepting of the impulse to launch or join a company, and that philosophy has spread more widely over time.
When it comes to academics playing a part in industry, “we’re all very comfortable with it” by now, said Jacks, director of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. He recently helped found Equipoise Therapeutics, which focuses on stimulating the body’s own killer cells to fight cancer. It’s the fifth company he’s had a hand in getting off the ground.
Longtime academics who shift part of their attention to industry say they do so for many reasons.
Sometimes they’re presented with an opportunity they can’t turn down, or they’re eager to try something new. Many also want to turn all those years spent toiling in labs — all those experiments in test tubes, computer models, and mice — into applications that could directly help patients.
And if an existing biopharma company won’t license their research, it’s up to them to start their own enterprise. Researchers accustomed to university life then face a crash course in entrepreneurship, as they learn to woo investors instead of hunting for federal grants. They also have to make sure their role at a for-profit company doesn’t create any conflicts of interest that could compromise their work as an academic scientist.
For Dr. Jeffrey Lawson, a vascular surgeon at Duke University, the decision to join a biotech firm in October sprang from a sense that he’d regret staying outside. He remains on the Duke faculty, and still squeezes in some patient care, but dropped other roles — such as serving as vice chair of research in the surgery department — to make time for his work as chief medical officer at Humacyte, which is preparing a Phase 3 clinical trial for its lab-grown blood vessel.
One of his research collaborators founded the company in 2004, a time when Lawson was more focused on developing his academic career. He had worked for years as a consultant with the company, but wanted a bigger role as the product advanced through the clinical process.
“If I didn’t participate from the 15-yard line in, and it failed, I would never forgive myself,” Lawson said.
Some longtime university scientists say they spent the first portion of their careers fully in the ivory tower in part because it was unthinkable to push their research out of their labs into clinical development.
“I thought that I [was] supposed to do basic research — translational research is the job of industry, not my job,” said Daria Mochly-Rosen, a Stanford University protein chemist.
In 2003, a graduate student prodded her to think more expansively, so Mochly-Rosen helped found KAI Pharmaceuticals to work on a kidney disease treatment.
“I was told by many it would ruin my career,” she said.
That’s not to say that academic scientists totally cordoned themselves off from the industry in the past. Dr. Dean Sheppard, a pulmonologist at the University of California, San Francisco, has collaborated with biopharma companies big and small for about 15 years. But last month, he helped launch his own startup, Pliant Therapeutics, which aims to treat fibrosis.
“It’s a nicer feeling to know that the people involved in the effort with you are all in” on the same mission, as opposed to working for a larger company with multiple research areas, Sheppard said.
Sheppard said he toyed with the idea of leaving his faculty position and jumping fulltime into Pliant “maybe for 30 seconds.”
But like many scientists who spoke to STAT about dividing their time between academia and industry, Sheppard said he couldn’t give up the freedom that comes with being able to chase a variety of ideas in a faculty lab instead of being relentlessly dedicated to one target.
“I love the freedom to explore things, and not to walk in a straight line,” Mochly-Rosen agreed.
But then, industry has its appeal, too. A decade ago, Mochly-Rosen launched Stanford’s SPARK program to connect researchers and industry leaders, and to teach academics about opportunities for translating their work into products. She got some pushback at first over concerns that industry representatives would try to steer university research, but said she sees more academic scientists now looking for help to get their ideas out to the world.
“There is nothing more exciting and humbling and intoxicating than realizing that you can take your basic research all the way to patients,” she said. “I really mean that. It sounds kind of bombastic, but there’s nothing like that.”