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Success rate soars for biotech innovations under Stanford SPARK program

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: August 12th, 2020

An in-depth article on the Stanford SPARK program appears in the July issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, along with more than 13 years of archived best practices and success strategies for TTOs, click here.

While helping society is often the stated mission of universities, much of their biomedical research never moves beyond the research lab to benefit patients. In many cases, it languishes simply because the inventor just doesn’t know how to take it further. But since 2006, the SPARK at Stanford program has been teaching academics to transform their research so that it can be translated and commercialized for the benefit of society. And not only is SPARK helping Stanford researchers; the program is also helping universities across the U.S. and around the world to replicate their success.

The program has been extremely successful and has caught the attention of the world’s top research scientists and even some world leaders. The program now operates worldwide under the umbrella of SPARK Global.

Stanford University School of Medicine Professor Daria Mochly-Rosen founded the SPARK program after she experienced the frustration of trying to launch her own start-up with less than a full complement of business acumen. Mochly-Rosen’s laboratory had come up with a cardiac drug that she thought could be commercialized, but when she tried to bring her drug to market, she founded a company, KAI Pharmaceuticals, to develop the drug. That’s when she came to the realization that she and her academic team were “totally clueless” about navigating a biotech start-up.

Mochly-Rosen also realized that many of her colleagues must face similar obstacles, and that many promising ideas had never even been patented let alone brought into a start-up. She also realized that, had she known then what she knew after a year of working with industry to commercialize a product, she would have done things differently. “I would have done more to prove that it was more valuable,” she explained. “And I would also have prepared myself and my students to understand what needs to be done next, to know the tools, to be a better partner for industry, and be able to move the product forward better.”

Dr. Peter Santa Maria, associate director of SPARK Stanford and a former participant in the program (a “SPARKee”), further describes the challenges academics face when working with industry. “When you’re in academia, you have to publish or perish, and you need to get a sustainable income to your lab to get it funded. And that’s really incongruous to getting a treatment out. SPARK is good at trying to align those things so that you can be a successful scientist running a successful lab and also do what you need to do to get your treatment to the clinic.”

Mochly-Rosen and the SPARK team instilled three essential elements into the program to overcome the obstacles academics face when working with industry or launching a start-up. The first element is using a translational approach to their research. Faculty researchers using this approach learn to focus on the patient or customer, to identify a clear unmet need, and to understand the problem in tandem with product development. Project management tools like target product profiles and timelines help SPARK participants identify key milestones, endpoints, and decision points.

The second element is engaging with knowledgeable industry advisors. All SPARK industry advisors work on a volunteer basis to share their know-how with the SPARKees.

The third element is getting the work done by individuals who are not subject to the rules of consensus typically found in industry. “This is important because great out-of-the-box ideas happen all the time. But decisions in industry are done by consensus, which is often the lowest denominator,” explains Mochly-Rosen. “But those ideas eliminated due to lack of consensus should have been explored. Without consensus, and [instead] taking the risk, we might be able to find ways to develop drugs faster, better, and cheaper.”

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