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Meeting industry needs

Reverse pitch event proves big success for BIO Alabama

This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

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RALLY, a reverse-pitch event held late last month in Mountain Brook, AL, drew positive reviews from both research institutions and industry partners, according to Rachel Lane, PhD, the CEO of BIO Alabama. RALLY was a partnership between BIO Alabama (the trade association for Alabama’s bioscience industry and the state affiliate of BIO International) and the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“I give credit to Southeast Life Sciences, which did a reverse-pitch event called Surge for their conference in October,” says Lane, noting that her attendance at that event was what inspired her to create the inaugural RALLY.

How does she define this event as ‘reverse-pitch’? “We collected ideas from industry on where they intentionally seek collaborations with universities,” she explains. “I then disseminated [those industry comments] to our research institutions [so they could] review their IP, find alignment, and be prepared to present their technology.” A committee of four then prepared two- or three-sentence reviews of the technologies to make sure they were properly aligned with the stated industry needs.

For Lane, the reverse-pitch model has clear advantages over typical university technology showcases. “For one, it’s educational for our researchers,” she says. “Our training [as scientists] makes us more and more narrow, focused on molecular interactions, and we’re not always aware of clinical problems, or how our discoveries could fit into clinical or industry needs. That makes it a great opportunity for university groups. And since we’re doing it as a state, there’s a lot of value in that it enables our industry partners to see across institutions; they could potentially find matches with multiple universities.”

Bill Dean, executive director at the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, which submitted a number of technologies for industry consideration, agrees. “I think the model’s excellent,” he says. “We’re re-evaluating, restructuring ourselves. If you look geographically across the country, [specific areas of research] are so heavily clustered — like biosciences in California and the New England states. If industry comes in and calls on universities in that reverse-pitch and says, ‘we need to be able do these things to solve these societal problems and issues,’ we’re able to ask how we can transfer more of our discoveries to the marketplace. As we ask those questions, it really helps us augment our efforts and builds stronger collaborations and partnerships.”

‘Tag-team’ with conference

The inaugural RALLY immediately followed the conclusion of the two-day bioscience conference, themed “Building Alabama’s Biohorizons.” In fact, the conference ended at 1:00, and RALLY began just an hour later. Presenters included Auburn University, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Southern Research, Tuskegee University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of South Alabama.

“I’m not so sure we’ll do that again,” says Lane. “Hopefully, we can do a spin-off, but it was nice for industry participants to meet the scientists during the conference casually, then more deeply at RALLY.” Interestingly, she spoke with one company co-founder who “loved” having more general, causal chats first and then diving into specifics later, while the other co-founder from the same company “would like to have had specifics up front, had time for them to simmer over the conference, and then have more discussions later.”

The conference featured 28 posters in all — an average of three per institution, although Lane says Auburn had 11. The posters were displayed in a big ballroom, and at the opposite end there were small “pitch stations.” To make sure all 28 technologies could be covered in the three-hour conference, at the appointed time a research presenter (a PI, grad student or tech transfer staff member) would take their poster to their station, do a five-minute pitch followed by two minutes of questions, and then a few minutes were allocated for turnover “so industry participants were not at more than four or five pitch sessions at a time,” Lane explains.

“Whenever they were not sitting and listening, they could mingle about and talk, learning about other technologies and following up with scientists.” After the presentations ended, two representatives from each institution and each industry partner attended a dinner.

Looking to follow up

Dean, who sent some of his colleagues to attend RALLY, spoke with UIEA immediately following the event, and had not yet had the opportunity to follow up with his group. Once he has, he wants to encourage further discussions with potential partners while asking these questions: Can we do it? Can we support it? And if we can’t, why not? What is the gap, or barrier, to our process?

“We might not be able to do all things for all industry partners,” he notes. “We have to focus on our specific areas of expertise.” He adds, however, that the participation of several different universities at RALLY speaks to a growing trend that can help individual institutions reach into areas with which they may not have direct expertise. “You’re now seeing outreach across a broader network, seeking multiple universities in a collaboration. We’re trying to collaborate even with our system of universities,” says Dean. This diversity and added strength, he notes, “can expedite a better pathway to commercialization.”

Lane, who has spoken with a number of university and industry attendees from RALLY, says “everyone was really positive.” Rhodium Scientific, she says, “just loved it. They said they found so many great connections. Southern Research has followed up with three or four industry participants.”

CFD Research, which was focused on SBIR contracts, said they had at least two technologies they were going to follow up on, which caused Lane to become aware of something she had perhaps not thought through as much. “We were able to connect research partners with industry along that commercialization spectrum,” she observes. “Whether they were looking for an SBIR partner or more technology research for licensing, we were able to fill in all of the spaces. It was really exciting to see.”

As for potential lessons learned, Lane notes that not all industry partners were required to do a webinar over their pitch deck, “but the ones that did got more matches. They gave researchers the ability to clarify issues.” Overall, she concludes, “we thought it was really successful; it provided a lot of value to the state of Alabama. In talking with people about next year they said, ‘We’re there — you can count on us.”

Contact Dean at 334-844-6140 or wmd0014@auburn.edu; Contact Lane at rachel@bioalabama.com.


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