Out of the lab and into the world: Yale faculty bring research to market
In 2013, Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki invited Anna Marie Pyle, a biochemist and structural biologist working on Science Hill, to speak at a seminar she was hosting at the medical school. During the event, Pyle discussed her work on a molecule called RIG-I that can detect and respond to certain viral infections. Afterward, the two Yale colleagues talked over lunch.
That conversation started a professional relationship that has now lasted nearly a decade and evolved beyond the confines of the academy: Two years ago, Iwasaki, now Sterling Professor of Immunology, and Pyle, Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and a member of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, started a company together.
Their company, RIGImmune, aims to develop a new class of therapies that target a broad range of conditions arising from viral infections and cancer. The technology centers around RIG-I, the protein that got them talking all those years ago.
RIGImmune is just one of 60 new businesses to emerge from Yale’s research labs and classrooms in recent years. In the last year alone, 10 Yale researchers have transformed their ideas into businesses that have real-world impact, tackling such challenges as cancer, RNA antivirals, and major depression, and raising $58 million in new venture financing.
Their success reflects an increasing emphasis by the university on supporting and expanding innovation and entrepreneurship throughout Yale, New Haven, and the world.
Key to this support for innovation is Yale Ventures, a university initiative launched earlier this year that assumed and expanded upon the functions of the former Office of Cooperative Research. A campus-wide initiative, Yale Ventures supports Yale’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, connecting faculty, students, staff, and community innovators through innovation programming, intellectual property & licensing resources, business development, partnerships, mentorship, and events.
As part of this work, it calls attention to the innovative ideas emerging from research labs on campus. This fall, Yale Ventures inaugurated a Faculty Innovation Award and honored 12 Yale researchers — including Iwasaki and Pyle — who in the last three years have created 10 companies. These mostly early-stage firms are harnessing computational neuroimaging, developing pharmaceuticals, and designing cancer treatments, for example, converting scholarly triumphs into products with the potential to improve society at large.
“Each of our honorees illustrates how we can translate research into beneficial products, services, and social ventures,” President Peter Salovey said during an award ceremony held on campus in the fall. “And together, they offer an exciting glimpse of the boundless promise our future holds.”
‘A new excitement, a new vibe’
At Yale, of course, the marriage of innovation and entrepreneurship is nothing new. University researchers have generated more than 1,800 patents in the past 40 years. With increased support from Yale, this spirit of entrepreneurship has been gaining momentum and materializing.
The average number of companies founded each year by Yale faculty has doubled in recent years from five to 10, for example. And in each of the past five years, Yale-founded companies have undertaken successful initial public offerings.
“I feel a new excitement, a new vibe, within the Yale community, and a newfound commitment to innovation as manifested by Yale Ventures,” said Craig Crews, the John C. Malone Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, who has launched four different firms based on his research and was among those recently honored.
“What Yale Ventures is doing for the faculty community is wonderful in the sense that it not only is aligning policy to be more founder-friendly but is also educating and encouraging faculty to consider the translation of their academic research into the private sector. That helps patients, that helps Yale, that helps the local ecosystem, and that helps build a community of innovation here at Yale.”
Crews’ most recent venture, Siduma Therapeutics, for which he received a Faculty Innovation Award, is developing molecules that can control levels of disease-causing proteins. His first business, Proteolix, developed a drug called carfilzomib for treating multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. It works by preventing protein complexes called proteasomes from breaking down other proteins. Another company, Arvinas, has developed technology for targeting specific proteins for degradation, such as disease-causing proteins related to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. And Halda Therapeutics is a drug discovery company working on tools to deactivate problematic proteins.
His three existing firms are all located in New Haven. Halda Therapeutics is in Science Park; Siduma Therapeutics was among the first to lease space in the new Elm City Bioscience Center, on Church Street; and Arvinas, currently in Science Park, has leased space in 101 College Street, a new bioscience facility set to open this year. Together, they employ more than 400 people. (A pharmaceutical company purchased the assets of Proteolix in 2009.)
Keeping his companies local is important to him, said Crews.
“We all need to work together to build the critical mass of biotech and biotech workers here in New Haven so that people following us will have an easier time,” he said. “My hope is that we’ll be able to use the large intellectual property generated every year by Yale as an engine for continued economic growth locally, which will benefit New Haven, Yale, and even the state.”
Growing the New Haven entrepreneurship community — and its standing as an innovation hub — is a key element of Yale Ventures’ mission.
“We want to signal to the Yale community that the university champions entrepreneurship. We’re here to help people turn world-changing ideas into ventures and to celebrate their achievements as they move forward,” said Josh Geballe, senior associate provost for entrepreneurship and innovation and managing director of Yale Ventures.
Many companies launched by Yale researchers over the last two decades are based in Connecticut or are local to New Haven.
Yale’s Ranjit Bindra, the Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Therapeutic Radiology, has so far established five companies, including recent ventures Modifi Biosciences, co-founded with Seth Herzon, the Milton Harris ’29 Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry, and Alphina Therapeutics. When Alphina originally opened, Bindra said recently, it was located in New York City because, at the time, he couldn’t find a space in New Haven.
“But we’ve brought it back home,” he told a crowd at the Faculty Innovation Awards, during which he was also honored, to cheers and applause. Bindra was recently named the 2022 BioCT Entrepreneur of the Year.
Today, Alphina Therapeutics, along with Modifi Biosciences, is headquartered in New Haven’s Elm City Bioscience Center, a new life sciences-focused facility that opened on the corner of Church and Center Streets last year. Soon, 101 College Street will open, providing further space for the flourishing of the city’s bioscience ecosystem. Yale has signed on as an anchor tenant and will support a biotech incubator there.
From academia to biotech
How do researchers decide that it’s time to move their work beyond the lab and into the biotech sector? For Crews, it was when his Yale lab started a new research project.
In the late 1990s, still early in his career, Crews discovered a small molecule that displayed what he considered “interesting” biological activity. The molecule, a natural compound, exhibited anti-tumor characteristics that had yet to be explained. Crews studied it for years and developed a deep understanding of the molecule and its potential.
“It was a nice body of academic research that built out the foundation of knowledge,” he said, “which is our mandate in academia.” But he wanted a new research project that his students and postdocs would really be able to dig into, and off of which they could build their own careers. The molecule he’d worked on, however, held a lot of promise for treating multiple myeloma, a condition for which the only treatment came with some hefty side effects.
“I felt that if I was not going to continue this project in my academic lab and there was this unmet need that patients had for a better drug, then it would serve everybody to explore how a private company could take Yale’s intellectual property and move it forward,” he said. “And that’s what Proteolix did.”
The drug Proteolix developed (now owned by Amgen) has helped hundreds of thousands of patients with multiple myeloma.
Similarly, it was the need to solve a practical problem that inspired Demetrios Braddock, an associate professor of pathology at Yale, to entrepreneurship. He recently launched his second venture, Petragen, a company that’s developing small molecules for treating and reversing periodontal disease, which can have serious, long-term effects, particularly in the elderly.
The disease affects the gums and the bones that support the teeth. More than 47% of adults over 30 in the United States have some form of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And prevalence increases with age, with over 70% of adults over 65 affected.
“The disease is very highly linked to heart attacks and basic general health,” said Braddock. “And there’s significant need for treatment. We have the roadmap for treatment and the game plan, and now with Petragen, we’re working to execute it.”
Braddock says his ambition was influenced by his father who, like himself, had big ideas and a drive to pursue them. Throughout his career, this entrepreneurial spirit led him to develop new therapies for persistent medical needs and, ultimately, brought him to Yale.
“When you have these ideas and want to see them developed, you need support to do that,” Braddock said. “Yale’s a great place to do these kinds of things.”
Steering ideas, solving problems
There are, Braddock says, two fundamental ingredients for a bioscience company: the idea and the business. The former, which involves developing the science, was familiar and comfortable for him. But the business aspect was not something he had trained for, and Yale Ventures was critical in that regard.
“The Yale Ventures team listens, helps steer ideas, and helps solve problems,” he said.
Braddock has been working with Yale Ventures and its predecessor for over 15 years, including through the launch of his first company, Inozyme Pharma, which was built around a drug he’d already developed in his lab at Yale. The decision to take the work from academic lab to a biotech company, he says, was really about overcoming a roadblock.
The drug he developed targets a disease called generalized arterial calcification of infancy, in which calcium builds up in the blood vessels. Half of infants with the disease die within the first six months of life. But despite demonstrating successful treatment in animal models, Braddock was having a hard time getting grant money to continue the research and move it closer to the patients who needed it.
But venture capital firms were interested and started reaching out with offers.
“And this is where Yale Ventures is crucial,” he said. “Because they know the business world. Several times they pulled me into meetings to educate me about these processes and how to engage with investors in a way that helps move the ball forward.”
With venture capital support, Inozyme Pharma launched in 2017. Next year, the drug it has developed will enter Phase 3 clinical trials.
“In academia, we are very logical people and we train ourselves to be objective,” said Braddock. “But we can become very passionate about ideas, and as humans, we drive them to exhaustion, to failure. Or we drive them to success. And that’s how science gets done, in my opinion. That’s how great ideas come out of the muck of oblivion and into the world.”
Fred Mamoun: firstname.lastname@example.org, 203-436-2643