Making industry a second language for the life sciences ivory tower

Medical device and diagnostics companies--just like their counterparts in biotech and Big Pharma--are increasingly faced with a dearth of new products in the pipeline. As a result, they, and investors in those spaces, are more often drawn to academic labs in a quest for new and innovative technologies. Boston Scientific's ($BSX) recent wide-ranging research deal with the University of Minnesota underscores that fact. And people like Nancy Wetherbee are trying to make the process quicker, more efficient and profitable for all parties involved.

Wetherbee is the first-ever director of the Office of Research Business Development & Industry Translation at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, the teaching hospital for the Tufts University School of Medicine. Wetherbee, at the hospital for about three years (the first year as a consultant), is an industry veteran herself, having worked in various business development positions at companies including Athena Diagnostics, imaging agent developer Acusphere and Transport Pharmaceuticals, among others. Wetherbee said she agrees that collaboration and communication between academia, investors and industry regarding devices and diagnostics has been accelerating, and for good reason.

"We're beginning to see [that] the medical device industry really needs new products and ideas," she said. "And people who work in academic medical centers are using these devices and taking care of patients every day. And they have tons of great ideas about ways to improve existing devices and for new devices. But there has been no conduit in any organized or institutionalized way [at Tufts Medical Center] for those ideas to flow to companies that can develop and commercialize them."

Dr. Richard Karas, chief scientific officer at Tufts Medical Center, said Wetherbee's presence has helped change the culture at his hospital, teaching researchers how to interact with and approach industry.

"A major portion of her work here has been one of educator," Karas said, "Teaching people who have lived all their lives in academics about industry, how to talk to and partner with industry and how to think about things from a commercial perspective, and really that it can be done and you can have a good idea come to fruition."

Karas admits that industry has long partnered with research hospitals, but more on "one-off" deals. The difference now, in the program Wetherbee is helping to build, is there is regular institutional support and an organized, regular effort to identify and develop business deals around the inventions developed at TMC.

Omar Amirana, is managing director of the Boston Private Equity firm Allied Minds, which is working with Wetherbee's office on a potential spin-out in cardiovascular medicine. He said Wetherbee's position is increasingly common and vital at academic institutions, going beyond traditional technology transfer offices.

"Universities more clearly understand the need to leverage IP as an asset that can be a revenue generator or income provider for their institutions," he said. "And there is a substantial number of early stage technologies that could have meaningful outcomes for all involved. But given the dearth of early-stage investors, in today's economic climate, to get the deal done, it requires more sophistication than in previous times."

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Another reason why academic labs are hiring industry vets to accelerate these deals: Amirana argues that "a lot of institutional investors simply won't deal with or tolerate long, laborious and tedious negotiations" that have traditionally been more common in industry/academic relationships. That's because "there is a plethora of things to invest in today," thus an industry person working to identify and help develop new technological opportunities can really help.

So how has Wetherbee's work at Tufts Medical Center faired so far? Tufts Medical Center isn't disclosing a lot of data yet. But Karas said physicians and investigators' invention disclosures jumped from 26 in 2011 (a generally static number) to 52 (and counting) so far in 2012. This is a significant number because invention disclosures notify the technology transfer office that an invention exists, and starts the process of whether Tufts wants to file a patent. And that's also where Wetherbee can help accelerate the process.

Another important statistic: Tufts Medical Center's surgical research lab boosted its surgical research revenue 400% since Wetherbee came on board, Karas said, in large part because of more companies bringing early device prototypes to the medical center for feedback and further development. Once a "moderately large cost center" (a department that carried a deficit), the lab is now in the black.

"The top ten/top 20 large (device-specific) companies are at our door," Wetherbee said.

Tufts Medical Center's recent Innovation Day is another bellwether of how well concerted promotion of intellectual property at an academic research institution can pay off. Wetherbee said that out of 10 programs presented that day, nine have at least three investors who are pursuing follow-up discussions.

"In particular," she added in a follow-up email, "all of the medical device/diagnostic programs have active discussions with the investment community." -- Mark Hollmer (email | Twitter)