The Entrepreneurs

Fostering a Culture of Innovation, Weill Cornell Medicine is Making it Faster and Easier for Researchers to Move their Discoveries From Bench to Bedside

By Beth Saulnier 
Photos by John Abbott

As Dr. Augustine M.K. Choithe Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine, sees it, the programs that Weill Cornell Medicine has established in recent years to nurture the evolution of faculty research into new patient therapies aren’t just innovative. Together, he says, they add up to something unique in the history of academia. “For the first time, there is a fully funded, fully staffed, unbroken pathway from an idea in a professor’s head to proving it works in people,” he says. “This is not happening anywhere else in the world.”

One of those programs, the nonprofit Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute, fosters early stage drug development by bringing Weill Cornell Medicine investigators and their colleagues at neighboring institutions Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and The Rockefeller University together with medicinal chemists from Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Company. “The true value of our faculty’s innovative research isn’t revealed until it gets into the human realm,” says its inaugural Sanders director, Dr. Michael Foley. “Being entrepreneurial and moving these projects forward are where we really begin to shine.” At Weill Cornell Medicine, he says, “our professors have more of these tools at their disposal than at any other academic institution on the planet.”

Those tools include a further step in the drug development pipeline: a for-profit company, Bridge Medicines, that was founded in 2016 — three years after the Tri-I TDI. A collaboration by the TDI partners and two investment firms, Bridge Medicines furthers development of drugs that have been nurtured by TDI and have commercial potential. “We take a molecule from the time it first shows potential at TDI as a drug candidate and do the work required to initiate clinical trials,” explains its CEO, Dr. William Polvino, a pharma industry veteran trained in internal medicine. “A lot of those activities go on behind the scenes and are not particularly glamorous—but oftentimes it’s where things stop, because getting to the point of clinical studies requires time, money and expertise.”

Both TDI and Bridge Medicines are innovative approaches to closing the proverbial “development gap.” Also known as the “valley of death,” it’s the space where too many promising clinical advances languish, stuck between the initial idea and the concrete results that would attract funding from granting agencies or outside investors. But programs like TDI and Bridge Medicines have another benefit as well: they nurture the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit that is growing among researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine and its peer institutions. “The entrepreneurial ecosystem we’re building here is critical for recruitment and retention,” notes Larry Schlossman, Weill Cornell Medicine’s managing director of BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations. “When new faculty are being recruited, the department chair often asks me to meet with the potential recruit, because he or she has asked what programs and infrastructure we have to support entrepreneurship. They’re interested in developing new technologies and starting companies—and only those institutions that offer dedicated resources are going to be able to compete.”

Opened in 2014, the BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations office was founded specifically to catalyze business development opportunities around the work of Weill Cornell Medicine investigators, which includes designing the value proposition of faculty and student work, crafting and marketing collaboration proposals to industry, generating interest from outside investors, and negotiating high-value research alliance agreements. It has proven critical to generating interest from outside investors and significant increases in research funding from industry. The office’s efforts include launching the Weill Cornell Medicine BioVenture e-Lab (formerly known as the Dean’s Entrepreneurship Lab), which offers resources and training for students and faculty interested in translating their research to the commercial sphere—a cadre whose number are growing. A related, university-wide entity, the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL), has a New York City office, run by Dr. Brian Kelly that also plays a significant role in Weill Cornell Medicine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. CTL works with Weill Cornell Medicine faculty to identify and manage their inventions, filing patents on those ideas and marketing and licensing them to potential industry partners. In many instances, these inventions can be the genesis of start-up companies, with which CTL negotiates the foundational intellectual property agreements. “The spirit at Weill Cornell is phenomenal,” Dr. Polvino says. “I see a lot of energy, excitement and interest. The ideas and momentum here are great.”

In 2014, Weill Cornell Medicine established a funding stream to help propel the development of promising ideas. Known as the Daedalus Fund for Innovation—named for an ingenious inventor from Greek myth—it supports early stage research projects that have significant commercial potential, offering awards of as much as $300,000. Schlossman emphasizes that Daedalus is not a grant-giving entity, but rather a business-focused seed fund for technology development; its goal, he says, is to establish sufficient proof of concept to attract outside investment, getting projects to the point where they’re “partnership ready.” “We’re trying to build a pipeline,” he says. “The attrition rate in pharma is formidable and sobering, because almost everything fails in clinical trials. So you’ve got to get technologies out of the lab and into a commercial setting, where they can be developed with the focus and rigor that only industry can provide. The more you increase your shots on goal, the greater the odds that something will succeed.” Taken together, the various programs of Weill Cornell Medicine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem have already nurtured the work of hundreds of faculty and students. Board chairman Jessica Bibliowicz points out that these early successes—including projects spearheaded by the investigators who are featured on the following pages—have inspired similar efforts at other institutions, including Stanford, Oxford and Johns Hopkins. “The world is waking up to this; it’s the hottest thing,” she says. “It’s very gratifying to see others embrace this model.”

 This story first appeared in Weill Cornell Medicine, Vol. 17. No. 1

Dr. Himisha Belatran, Associate Medicine Professor, and Dr. David Rickman, Associate Pathology & Laboratory Medicine Research Professor

Dr. Beltran, a physician-scientist, and Dr. Rickman, a molecular biologist, have long worked together to study treatment resistance in prostate cancer—research that could aid the 20 to 30 percent of patients suffering from the disease’s deadliest and most aggressive forms. As they explain, while most prostate cancers are driven by male hormones called androgens—and treatments are therefore focused on targeting them—these deadlier forms seem to be spurred by other factors, requiring new methods of attack. To pursue these, Dr. Beltran and Dr. Rickman sought assistance from the BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations office, which generated their partnerships—in collaboration with Dr. Mark Rubin, founding director of the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine—with several drug companies, including Janssen. “Each project is taking a different approach, because there’s not just one way to tackle this problem,” says Dr. Beltran, who has served as a paid consultant to Janssen, “but they have a common goal of improving outcomes for patients with this aggressive subgroup of cancers.” The structure of the deals, as negotiated by BioPharma Alliances, ensures that Weill Cornell Medicine will receive fair value for its intellectual contributions if the fruits of the team’s research is commercialized. Dr. Rickman points out that this work with pharma is typical of the new breed of academic-industry partnership—one that’s quite different from old-style sponsored research. “Historically, collaborations with industry have not necessarily been collaborative; it was, ‘Here’s a compound, here’s some money, go test it for us,’” he says. “The kinds of alliances we have now are a lot more interactive; we have recurring meetings where we present the science and the findings. Intellectually, it’s a lot more rewarding.”

Dr. Katherine Hajjar, Brine Family Cellular & Developmental Biology Professor

More than five million Americans currently suffer from diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness in industrialized nations—and by 2050, that number is expected to rise to 15 million. With an award from the Daedalus Fund for Innovation, Dr. Hajjar aims to develop more effective treatments by preventing one of the disease’s major factors: the proliferation of abnormal blood vessels in the retina. “We have a panel of antibodies that are directed at a novel target protein,” Dr. Hajjar explains. “The project is to check their efficacy and understand the dosing, timing and so forth—all the details of treatment—using a mouse model.” Support from Daedalus, she says, “is absolutely essential, because the usual funding agencies, like the NIH, do not support this kind of high-risk applied research. While the NIH did support this in the early basic science research stages, all of the necessary follow-up work, which has generated significant added value, would not have been possible without Daedalus funding.

Nick Braiman, Tri-Institutional Computational Biology & Medicine Ph.D. Candidate

Braiman is a grad student in the lab of Dr. Nicholas Schiff, MD ’92, the Jerold B. Katz Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience and an expert in disorders of consciousness. While Braiman didn’t have entrepreneurial dreams before matriculating at Weill Cornell Medicine, he has since dived in wholeheartedly. He participated in the Bench to Bedside Initiative, a twelve-week intensive course offered by the Weill Cornell Medicine BioVenture e-Lab that teaches students and faculty how to pitch a biotech company to investors. He also took third place in a recent business plan competition that the Lab held, winning legal advice and $10,000 in start-up funding for his project, BrainTrak, which he is currently in the process of incorporating. It uses EEG technology to measure how brain damaged patients respond to speech, based on paradigms that Braiman developed. “There are applications for healthy people as well,” he says, explaining that since the method essentially measures engagement with a stimulus, it could be valuable for the field of market research—potentially providing more reliable feedback than traditional surveys and focus groups. “One of the advantages of a market research application is that it is possible to generate revenue on a faster timescale, as FDA approval is not required,” he says. “This revenue can then be used to fund biomedical applications and improve patient care.”

Dr. Teresa Sanchez, Assistant Pathology & Laboratory Medicine Professor

“As basic researchers, we study the molecular mechanisms of disease,”Dr. Sanchez notes. “But without the opportunity to develop novel molecules or ways to block these pathways, it’s very difficult to translate our scientific discoveries into the clinical realm.” Thanks to Tri-I TDI, Dr. Sanchez and her team got just such an opportunity. Also an assistant professor of neuroscience in the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute, Dr. Sanchez uses a mouse model to study the blood vessels that leak following a stroke. Medicinal chemists at TDI—whose contributions she calls “priceless”—are helping to develop compounds to block the molecular pathways that cause these vessels to leak, with the goal of establishing proof of concept in a mouse model. The project could eventually graduate to Bridge Medicines for clinical development. The ultimate aim: developing new drugs to protect patients from the often devastating aftereffects of stroke—or even preventing strokes from occurring in the first place.

Dr. Gang Lin, Associate Microbiology & Immunology Research Professor

Dr. Lin focuses his research on proteasomes, protein complexes that play key roles in numerous cellular processes. His investigations have spurred him to take part in multiple facets of Weill Cornell Medicine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, including collaborating with Tri-I TDI; he has also received three Daedalus awards to support work with potential implications for a variety of diseases and conditions, including treating fungal infections and preventing rejection after organ transplant. One of those projects—a collaboration with Dr. Carl Nathan, dean of the Graduate School of Medical Sciences and chairman of microbiology and immunology—was the first to go from Daedalus to industry. Their development of a novel class of inhibitors of immunoproteasomes, which play a critical role in inflammation and autoimmune diseases, has enabled a licensing agreement between Cornell University and Allied-Bristol Life Sciences (ABLS, a joint venture between Bristol-Myers Squibb and Allied Minds), and a corresponding dedicated research alliance that was generated by Weill Cornell Medicine’s office of BioPharma Alliances; its aim is to explore safer and more effective treatments for diseases such as lupus. Dr. Lin, who will serve as a paid consultant to ABLS, notes that the project’s Daedalus award made an enormous difference, enabling the hiring of a postdoc who increased the number of compounds they were investigating—from just a handful to 200. “Without it,” he says, “we’d basically still be at the bench.”

Dr. Timothy McGraw, Biochemistry Professor

Dr. McGraw has an analogy for how type 2 diabetes is currently treated: it’s like trying to drive a car without disengaging the emergency brake. As he explains, the disease arises when the body becomes resistant to insulin, a process often spurred by obesity. “You can think of insulin resistance as having the parking brake on,” he says. “You can try to overcome it by pushing down on the accelerator—but a better way would be to take the brake off.” About seven years ago, with scant extramural support, Dr. McGraw started exploring a potential way to do just that. He wondered whether insulin resistance might be caused by hormonal changes in the blood that are triggered by obesity, and found promising evidence to support his hypothesis. In 2014, after intensive engagement and negotiation with potential industry partners led by the BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations office, an agreement was concluded with the European drug company UCB, under which Dr. McGraw began a dedicated research alliance. UCB has provided significant funding and technical assistance as his lab investigates whether his findings could lead to new treatments for diabetes. “This is important biology that could potentially have an impact on human health,” says Dr. McGraw, who received an honorarium from UCB Biosciences, a subsidiary of UCB. “The funding from the company to take it to the next level has been absolutely critical.”

Dr. Yariv Houvras, Assistant Medicine Professor

Dr. Houvras, a physician-scientist and medical oncologist, studies cancer using zebrafish as a model organism. Working with Dr. Minkui Luo, a Weill Cornell Medicine associate professor of pharmacology whose lab is based at Memorial Sloan Kettering, he’s focusing on SET8—an enzyme that may be an important target in a variety of human cancers. Using zebrafish, Dr. Houvras’s lab identified a specific effect of SET8 inhibitors on melanocytes, the cells that give rise to melanoma. He then sought out Tri-I TDI for help in creating new SET8 inhibitors, chemical compounds that can help clarify how SET8 works in normal cells and in the context of specific cancers. “The TDI collaboration has allowed us to have a highly structured and close working relationship with medicinal chemists from Takeda Pharmaceuticals and chemical geneticists from the Luo Lab—it’s been a phenomenal team,” he says. “TDI has given us unparalleled new tools for studying disease. It’s incredibly important to build these interactions, both across institutions and across academia and industry.”