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Culture of patient-centric innovation at Mount Sinai

This article appeared in the July 2019 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

With 40 full-time employees, Mount Sinai Innovation Partners (MSIP) at the Mount Sinai Health System is one of the larger commercialization offices. Last year, the office engaged with 717 inventors and handled 128 disclosures and 209 patent filings. Behind those numbers are a bevy of programs and strategies that make MSIP an organization to watch and model. TTT spoke with leaders there to get an inside look at key tactics that drive their results, as well as the guiding principles that underlie their successes.

“We have a very healthy and productive culture that is focused on what we think of as commercially relevant translational research that ultimately may be able to benefit patients within the institution,” says Erik Lium, PhD, executive vice president of MSIP. “Even if you’re pursuing very early-stage, pure discovery based-research, there’s a culture that says, ‘let’s still think about how this might benefit a patient someday.’”

MSIP has developed five core principles that drive all of the office’s activities:

1) Proactively develop and maintain partnerships with members of the Mount Sinai community based on mutual trust and respect;

2) Proactively develop and maintain effective external commercial relationships and partnerships;

3) Challenge ourselves to continuously evolve and deploy best in class practices to translate innovations and discoveries from bench-to-bedside;

4) Invest in the people, processes and systems infrastructure required to effectively and efficiently achieve our mission; and

5) Manage our business as a portfolio of investments as we seek to achieve an equitable return for Mount Sinai.

 “[Those principles] provide a great foundation for our organization, [which] leads to a very cohesive team with a clear set of goals and a clear vision of what they’re trying to accomplish,” Lium says.

Behind the numbers

Here’s a brief look at what MSIP sees as the key programs and strategies behind its success:

• Concerted effort to engage with outside expertise. MSIP has a high level of proactive interaction with members of the Mount Sinai community. “I’m definitely a believer that there has to be good coordination around identifying technologies and advancing them in a manner that’s potentially commercially relevant,” says Lium. “There needs to be an ongoing dialogue between individuals that understand market dynamics and what’s out there in a competitive landscape. So, we spend a fair amount of time thinking about and communicating about when [an inventor has] a technology that’s been disclosed, what would a potential licensee or investor want to see in order to evaluate that technology from the perspective of moving forward with some type of a transaction.”

• Strong internship and externship programs. MSIP has an internship program that is focused on commercialization. “We have a didactic portion, which is about two-and-a-half-months long, and then that feeds into the ability for some of the individuals to work more closely with members of the (MSIP) team if they want to have a more focused experience that lasts longer,” says Lium. MSIP also offers a legal externship program in partnership with local law schools. These individuals work mainly with the MSIP contract team.

Cynthia Cleto, associate director of marketing and outreach, notes that MSIP also encourages the participation of externs from other institutions. “We actually expect folks from across the New York State life science ecosystem,” she says. Most institution are focused only on “developing the folks within the institution, but we’re thinking bigger,” she adds. “We’re thinking New York, we’re thinking our local ecosystems, so we’d like to include anybody who is interested: graduate students, postdocs, and professionals in the legal profession.”

• Aggressive use of master collaboration agreements. MSIP has many partnerships with external entities, and its aggressive use of master agreements has been a critical factor in building those partnerships. “We and other institutions have a number of large master research collaboration agreements with various entities: pharmaceutical, biotech companies, etc.,” says Lium. “The advantage of master agreements of any type — whether it’s confidentiality, material transfer agreements focused on data, sponsored research, or clinical trial — is obviously that in a situation where you have a master agreement, it allows you to more rapidly do multiple transactions, whether they’re in parallel or sequence with an entity that you have that kind of relationship with. So, it creates efficiency and allows you to move much more quickly.”

Strong accelerator ‘very important’

• A strong accelerator. Mount Sinai launched an accelerator in April 2018 called the i3 Accelerator (“i3” stands for innovation, inflection and impact), with an initial investment of $10.5M over four years. “The accelerator [includes] a fund specifically dedicated to advancing early stage technologies to later stages through milestones-based project development plans,” said Lium. “Advisors from the commercial world help us make decisions on which assets to fund and then what the next steps should be to advance those assets.”

The program helps fill the gap between a promising idea and market readiness, he observes. “Maybe we don’t have enough information yet for an investor or company of potential licensing to truly evaluate moving forward with the technology,” Lium explains. “Having a committed fund and a program around that for us to invest in specific research programs or assets [enables us] to move them to later stages. So really what we’re talking about is maturing those assets. It’s very important as a strategy.”

Entrepreneurs in residence and external business advisors help MSIP to evaluate ideas and develop milestone-based plans for maturing technologies via the accelerator. The EIRs are engaged and work with the fledgling companies on a regular basis; advisors are engaged less frequently, advising on milestone-based plans for i3-funded projects. “Entrepreneurs in residence and advisors help us to understand how a technology might be perceived, what its strengths and weaknesses might be in the marketplace, and what we need to do to advance it further,” Lium notes. “We only have so much expertise and obviously the field is very, very, broad, and so having entrepreneurs in residence and advisors helps to bring more people into our community [who] have a lot of experience that we may not have.”

• Staffing, structure, and goal-setting. The MSIP team is broken into sub-teams for business development, alliance management, new ventures, contracts and licensing, intellectual property, finance and operations, marketing and outreach, and administration. Each of the sub-teams develops goals that directly support MSIP’s five strategies.

“We hold group meetings to go through a process every year where we develop our goals for all of MSIP, as well as for the teams,” says Lium. “Everyone agrees on them, and then that sets our goals for the year. We also review those goals periodically throughout the year” to ensure the sub-teams and the office as a whole stay on track. “And if something changes where a goal becomes irrelevant for some reason, or needs to be changed in some manner, then we appropriately modify it. That’s done very collaboratively with the entire team. By having that kind of goal setting every year and having periodic retreats where we’re revisiting those goals, as well as other activities, [we] increase communication and collaboration across the team.”

The staff members come from both academia and industry. “We have taken a deliberate strategy of trying to include individuals with experience from the various industries that we are active in,” Lium comments. “They’re from pharmaceutical, prognostics and diagnostics, engineering, data sciences, information sciences, analytics, genomics etc. It’s a general theme — whether it be entrepreneurs-in-residence, or advisors, or team members that have experience from working in the industry — that just broadens the overall experience of the team and enables us to identify issues and develop strategies around moving technologies from early stage to later stage. We’re answering the questions that a partner would want to have an answer to.”

The MSIP communications team plays a central role in the success of the office. “Communicating the success of the organization is very important, and we have an active program,” Lium says. “Cynthia Cleto, among the many things that she does, works very, very closely with central marketing and communications for the institution. We think that it’s very important to have someone within, if it’s possible, either committed to communications regarding innovation and commercialization or someone embedded within the office, because it substantially can streamline and improve the ability of the organization to actually communicate its successes as well as develop programs.”

Software tracks IP, metrics

• Robust IP management system. A customized IP management system enables the MSIP staff to manage technologies and the further development of those technologies, as well as track key metrics. “A lot of technologies require additional work to advance to a point where you have the type of data that would be necessary to support a potential license, to make a decision on partnering with an institution in licensing for launching a new company, or a licensing transaction to an existing company. We’ve built a system for specifically managing all intellectual property and tracking the advancement of that intellectual property.”

MSIP’s system also incorporates tracking that internally reports metrics of office activities every week. “The metrics go out to the entire team and the metrics are used to be informative to the team — are things working the way we think they should be working, is there something that we need to keep our eyes on,” says Lium. For example, he illustrates, “are the number of agreements increasing rapidly so that we need more resources to ensure that we can support the institution? Metrics are used as a positive tool in terms of evaluating what we do and is it working well…. Data is required to have a well-drawn organization. We’ve taken steps to be very transparent within our team [about] data related to the various types of activity.”

The IP management system is a key tool in the office’s portfolio management activity, Luim adds. “We have a very rigorous process for evaluating new technologies that we learn about, and then deciding what the strategy is for advancing those technologies, whether we pursue some type of intellectual property protection immediately or we feel that it’s something where we need more data,” he says.

“In cases where we’re not filing, we’re using our systems for project management to help mature programs through the development of additional data results, intellectual property that begins to answer questions that an investor or an existing company … would be asking so that they can make an educated decision about whether to proceed with a license, an investment or otherwise.”

According to Luim, an IP management system “needs to — in a perfect world — help create efficiencies within the institution and within the commercialization engine for the institution through process automation wherever possible. For example, [by] creating a portal that investigators can log into to actually report new ideas of the technology. And creating modules that allow you to manage the various kinds of activities, including requests for all different types of contracts and getting those completed as well.”

• Transparency with researchers. MSIP is very transparent about its decisions, providing feedback and data to inventors on how they come to their conclusions about which assets to back. They provide a decision support document that goes through major topics related to the decision, such as competition and other market factors. The office also holds weekly decision meetings, to which they invite entrepreneurs, advisors, and faculty.

“I do think that we’ve brought a lot of strategies together into one organization, and I think that’s working very well for us,” says Lium. “As an institution we are very passionate about innovation. We think of it as patient-centric innovation. And it’s so important to be able to provide resources to help take an idea or a concept or initial findings from an initial stage and move it to a later stage, where you’ve begun to answer questions that are specifically related to enabling an investor to make an investment … or for an existing company to take a license — to advance the intellectual property to a later stage and hopefully developing a product that ultimately benefits patients.”

Contact Lium at erik.lium@mssm.edu; contact Cleto at cynthia.cleto@mssm.edu.  


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