Biomedical Business Plan Challenge Nurtures Weill Cornell Medicine Entrepreneurs

The company Iris takes first prize in the $100,000 Biomedical Business Plan Challenge. Team members from left to right: Drs. Rochelle Joly, Alison Herman, Meghan Reading Turchioe, Jyotishman Pathak, and graduate student Andrea Cohen. [Not pictured:Dr. Yiye Zhang]. All photos: Ashley Jones.

Dr. Jyotishman Pathak, the Frances and John L. Loeb Professor of Medical Informatics, and chief of the Division of Health Informatics in the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research at Weill Cornell Medicine, wanted to improve the way clinicians treat the more than 1.5 million U.S. women who suffer from mood and anxiety disorders related to pregnancy and childbirth. So, working closely Weill Cornell Medicine’s BioVenture eLab, he formed a company to do just that., The company seeks to integrate data patients can self-report with their electronic medical records to identify those who are at high risk of developing these disorders, such as postpartum depression, and enable clinicians to implement guideline-based interventions.

Dr. Pathak, and co-founder and chief medical officer Dr. Alison Hermann, and the multi-disciplinary team, can now develop a pilot study for their company, Iris, thanks to winning the $75,000 first prize in Weill Cornell Medicine’s $100,000 Biomedical Business Plan Challenge on May 14. The event, sponsored by the institution’s BioVenture eLab, is the culmination of a nine-week mentoring program that is designed to improve the ability of Weill Cornell Medicine clinicians and researchers to commercialize their concepts.

“The current approaches for treating and managing patients suffering from postpartum depression can often be ineffective,” said Dr. Pathak, the founder and chief science officer of Iris and a professor of healthcare policy and research in psychiatry. The company will now develop a digital health platform that uses artificial intelligence algorithms to identify at risk patients using data from their electronic medical records (EMRs), connected health devices and patient reported outcomes (PROs). Iris seeks to recruit 150-200 mothers for a market validation study of their platform later this year. “We’re truly honored to have won this competition—we learned so much through working with the eLab—and look forward to advancing our mission to nurture healthy motherhood.”    

Iris was one of seven companies formed by Weill Cornell Medicine investigators that participated in the Business Plan Challenge. The groups competed in Griffis Faculty Club in front of a panel of seven expert judges comprised of investors who specialize in early-stage companies, for investment capital for their NewCos  to help commercialize their technologies.

Dr. Jeremy Wiygul, founder of the second prize winning company, Pelex.

Dr. Jeremy Wiygul, founder of Pelex, which took second prize.

A second company, Pelex, received the $25,000 second prize. Pelex, founded by Dr. Jeremy Wiygul, an assistant professor of clinical urology at Weill Cornell Medicine and director of pediatric urology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Queens, developed a noninvasive medical device to treat disorders of the pelvic floor, including urinary incontinence and chronic pelvic pain. Pelex will use the prize money to conduct market research for its device. 

Each of the seven companies, which developed products in the digital health, medical device, diagnostic, therapeutic and imaging spaces, pitched their business plans to the panel of judges, who represented investment firms including Alexandria Venture Investments, NewYork Presbyterian Ventures and Soundview Capital Partners LP. Presenters answered questions ranging from their knowledge of their competitors to the long-term outlook on the demand for their products. 

“Dr. Pathak is a talented scientist who, as division chief, has advanced the field of health informatics and health data science to improve patient outcomes,” said Dr. Rainu Kaushal, chair of the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Now, through the establishment of this company, Dr. Pathak and Iris have the potential to make a lasting impact on women’s health, changing the way we identify and treat those suffering from postpartum depression.”  

The eLab, a Weill Cornell Medicine initiative dedicated to fostering a culture of entrepreneurship at the institution, was launched and is overseen by the Office of BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations, led by Managing Director Larry Schlossman.

The Biomedical Business Plan Challenge launched in 2017 as part of a continuation of the eLab’s Accelerating Bioventure Innovation, a life-sciences accelerator program that aims to move ideas from the patent stage to the investment and commercialization stage. In 2018, the event doubled the available prize money to $100,000 and focused on entrepreneurial teams that may have tested their products in a research environment and are seeking critical investment with a fleshed-out business plan.

“This program helps faculty members understand what it takes to launch a company,” said Dr. Jahanara Ali, director of BioVenture eLab. “And it connects them to people in the industry to help them figure out all of the pieces required to become profitable.” 

During the course of the nine-week program, teams learned all aspects of launching a company. Founders from established life sciences startups talked about dividing equity, challenges they faced building their companies, and how they were able to obtain seed stage funding, or the first line of funding. Expert speakers with deep domain expertise also discussed topics such as how medical devices and health IT technologies are regulated and the types of studies required for FDA approval.

Mentoring, Dr. Ali said, was critically important in preparing teams for the competition. Twenty-three mentors listened to initial overviews from the company representatives, identifying what they thought each team needed to work on, and teams were then paired with a subgroup of three to four mentors to address those issues. Some of the company founders, for example, needed help in developing a business model. Others needed help identifying which market they should pursue or focus on.

Mentors also play a role in advancing the company itself, Dr. Ali said.

“Many of our faculty may not be pursuing entrepreneurship full time, so it’s important who the mentors are and what resources they can bring to the table,” Dr. Ali said. “In some cases, mentors might take the company forward or be able to make connections with people who can help the company advance its mission.”

Going forward, BioVenture eLab plans to support all seven companies as they continue to refine and develop their business concepts. “The real winners will be the ones that are able to successfully bring their innovations to market and the patients who will benefit from their ingenuity and enterprise,” Dr. Ali said.

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