How one little-known biotech incubator is changing the face of medicine
Paul A. Fehrenbacher and two fellow graduate students at Northwestern University are postponing their graduations to develop a technology to help surgeons identify and keep from accidentally cutting blood vessels.
Daniel Leventhal, a doctoral student in cancer biology at the University of Chicago, is helping advise two professors working to develop new ways of treating cancer with less radiation or by making radiation treatment more effective.
Both Fehrenbacher, 34, and Leventhal, 26, are benefiting from Chicago’s little-known biotech incubator, Chicago Innovation Mentors, or CIM.
CIM pairs would-be biotech entrepreneurs with seasoned experts, and provides hands-on business experience to aspiring biotech entrepreneurs, faculty and graduate and post-doctorate students. The students face an increasingly tight job market in academia.
The long-term goal is to give students, professors and entrepreneurs the skills to create biotech companies in Chicago, and to build a community strong enough to keep those companies, jobs and brainpower here.
The effort to birth biotech companies is occurring as Chicago aims to boost the industry’s presence here. The world’s largest biotech conference, the BIO International Convention, meets April 22-25 at McCormick Place. In advance of the convention, Gov. Pat Quinn is slated to unveil a study on Illinois’ biotech sector. A research report last year put Illinois’ biotech industry at 3,400 sites and companies, called “establishments,” employing about 80,000.
CIM’s monthly meetings act much like “The Voice,” the NBC-TV reality singing competition in which contestants vie for coaches who can help them become stars. Most teams get three to five mentors — volunteer experts who have no vested interest in the startups.
It’s a unique program nationally because three rival universities — Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana — cooperate to send would-be student and faculty entrepreneurs to the matchup meetings. Other CIM members include Argonne National Laboratory, the iBIO Institute’s Propel Center, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Biomedical Consortium.
Alan Thomas, director of UChicagoTech, the University of Chicago’s technology transfer and intellectual property office, is credited with starting CIM with four colleagues — Alicia Loffler, Nancy Sullivan, David Miller and David Tiemeier.
John Flavin, a serial biotech entrepreneur, is the executive director and has grown the organization to 147 mentors advising 62 ventures.
Fehrenbacher, the Northwestern medical student, co-founded the surgery-tech startup, BriteSeed, after he and fellow students Muneeb A. Bokhari, a law student at the time; Jonathan W. Gunn, a law-school student, and Mayank Vijayvergia, a master’s level biomedical engineering student, watched their class-team mentor, Dr. David M. Mahvi, perform surgeries.
They came up with the idea of SafeSnips near-infrared technology that can be integrated into surgeons’ cutting tools to give a real-time, bird’s-eye view of blood vessels. The aim is to keep surgeons from accidentally cutting the wrong vessels at less cost than rivals’ solutions. Mahvi, the vice chair of surgery and chief of gastrointestinal and oncologic surgery at Northwestern, served as the students’ mentor in the “NUvention: Medical Innovation” program at the university. BriteSeed won the NUvention competition, as well as business-plan competitions at Chicago’s Techweek and New York’s Healthcare Innovation Group.
The BriteSeed leaders pitched their idea to CIM in July, and attracted six mentors, ranging from a serial entrepreneur to an intellectual property attorney to a cardiovascular surgeon who runs his own investment fund.
“To be able to have such expert knowledge from a variety of backgrounds provided us with the support, courage and fortitude we have today,” Fehrenbacher said.
Fehrenbacher, Gunn and Vijayvergia are delaying their graduations to work full-time on their company.
BriteSeed is partnering with Ravenswood-based Insight Product Development to develop a prototype of their technology.
The CIM Fellows program, run by the University of Chicago, assigns graduate students and post-doctorate students in the biosciences to work with professors who are making discoveries in the lab.
The big goals are to help mankind by advancing breakthrough technologies; enhance a university’s reputation with an innovative discovery; and let the students and faculty, or just the students, start their own companies and become biotech or life-sciences entrepreneurs, said Dr. (MD) Steven Gould, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Chicago’s Office of Technology and Intellectual Property who was the first to mentor the bioscience graduate and doctoral students. He is also founder and principal of the Gould Consulting Group.
Students need experience figuring out how to get lab discoveries into the marketplace, partly because only 15 to 20 percent can get faculty jobs in academia. It’s a bubble created after federal funding for biosciences trainees got cut.
Besides, more faculty have an interest in starting private companies based on their lab work, but don’t have time to dedicate to a full-time venture, so why not let the students do the risk-taking and heavy lifting?
“The faculty member gets a young, enthusiastic student who is a breath of fresh air and free help,” Gould said. “The students get exposure to the experience of moving a project along and start to learn how to build a startup.”
Michael Seiler, who started the University of Chicago’s Biotechnology Association to help the PhD and post-doc students gain business skills and get jobs, said the university has 300 biotech post-docs, and Northwestern University has 850 in engineering and life sciences.
Those students need to learn how to write business plans that explain a technology’s value so they can “take researchers’ cool ideas into the commercial space,” he said.
Seiler, vice president for scientific development at molecular-technology startup ArborVita Associates, said the skills he learned through CIM boosted the company’s ability to raise $190,000 in seed funding. Arbor Vita has set up a lab at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s University Technology Park.
Leventhal, the University of Chicago doctoral candidate who is vice-president of the school’s Biotechnology Association, is working with two professors to develop the idea of treating prostate cancer with a new treatment that requires less radiation or more effective radiation.
Professors Stephen Kron and Dr. Ralph Weichselbaum call their startup Oncosenescence, a mixture of terms meaning stopping cancer cells from growing.
Leventhal remains unsure about a career, but he said the experience has given him terrific insights into how to work in the private-sector.
“The more we integrate biotech entrepreneurship into the universities and bolster students’ and faculty training, the greater the chances it will bring more biotech to Chicago because there will be qualified job candidates,” he said.
Image of BriteSeed co-founder Paul Fehrenbacher by Andrew A. Nelles