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From Innovation to Impact

Duke researchers are taking their discoveries from the research lab into the marketplace

When four Duke researchers developed an innovative technique for exploring the non-coding genome—the 98 percent of our DNA that does not encode protein sequences, often called the genome’s “dark matter”—the implications were clear. Their approach, using technologies including CRISPR gene editing to shed new light on gene regulation, has enormous potential to guide development of new drugs to combat a host of genetic diseases.

The question the researchers then faced was: How best to develop those new therapies in order to make them available to patients? The answer: Take the work beyond the academic lab and into the world of commercialization.

The four researchers—Greg Crawford, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics; Charlie Gersbach, PhD, Rooney Family Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering; Tim Reddy, PhD, associate professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics; and Kris Wood, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and cancer biology—launched a startup company called Element Genomics. Last spring, Element made big news when a global pharmaceutical firm, UCB, acquired it for $30 million.

Element Genomics is emblematic of the growth of academic entrepreneurship, increasingly the path of choice to move innovative new biomedical technologies, devices, techniques, and other advances from the lab to the marketplace, where they can be deployed to benefit patients.

“We all want our work to have impact in the world,” says Wood. “And it’s great to see that, increasingly, faculty at Duke are able to take discoveries in their labs and not only publish those results to advance scientific understanding, but also leverage those discoveries to start companies that ultimately connect the science to consumers and patients.”

Navigating the Maze

Scientists are experts at doing science. They tend to be less conversant in matters like raising capital, negotiating industry contracts, and navigating commercial licensing and regulatory requirements.

Fortunately, Duke has a number of people who are experts in those areas, and they are on hand to help. Element Genomics benefitted greatly, for example, from the Duke- Coulter Translational Partnership, directed by Barry Myers, which supports translational research collaborations between the Duke Department of Biomedical Engineering and clinical units of Duke Health. John Oxaal, the Pratt School of Engineering’s first entrepreneur-in-residence, also played a key role in bringing Element Genomics to market, and served as the company’s CEO.

The main conduit between academic innovation and commercial enterprise at Duke is the Office of Licensing & Ventures (OLV), the university’s technology transfer office. OLV partners with faculty and staff, industry, and investors to help discoveries and innovations birthed in Duke labs reach the marketplace for the benefit of society, and to enable future investment in Duke research and innovation. That means guiding innovators through the complexities of analyzing the market and competition, securing patents, connecting with potential industry partners, raising capital, exploring options for licensing or launching a startup, negotiating deals, managing expenses and revenue, and more.

While Element Genomics was one of the quickest faculty startups to move from lab to launch to sale, it was far from the first. Last year alone, OLV received nearly 350 invention disclosures from Duke faculty, staff, and graduate students interested in moving their innovations from the lab to market. The majority of these inventions— about two-thirds—are related to improving health care through biomedical therapeutics, medical devices and diagnostics, and other innovations.

OLV was instrumental in the launch and acquisition of Element Genomics.

“Even before we knew we wanted to start a company, OLV was diligent in ensuring that we were properly ling new inventions, so when we were ready to start a company, we were able to transfer that technology,” Gersbach recalls. “OLV was incredibly helpful and responsive in getting the licensing deal complete, which was essential to our fundraising efforts and played a key role in the negotiation with the acquirer.”

Galvanizing Opportunities

At Element Genomics, the acquisition is helping the founders realize the potential of technologies they developed at Duke to create new medicines. It’s also helping create jobs—Element employs a number of Duke alumni—and stimulate biotech activity in Durham. The company will remain based in the newly renovated Chesterfield Building on West Main Street, a former tobacco factory that Duke has transformed into a gleaming hub of biotech and advanced science.

Most Duke startups remain in this area, providing opportunities for employment and growth throughout the Triangle. “These companies need the type of expertise that Duke alums have, whether it’s clinical, professional, or scientific leadership,” Hallford says. “There are real opportunities here for people who have the right skill set to take things forward and really make a difference.”

This expertise is particularly needed, because most faculty stay at Duke even after their companies launch.

“Taking those first steps was frightening, but also exhilarating,” Wood remembers. “We hope that our success galvanizes other scientists at Duke to think similarly about how they can convert their discoveries into commercial opportunities.”


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