When it comes to running a business, even the most seasoned innovators, like Chemistry of Life Processes Institute member Richard Silverman (chemistry) who developed pregabalin, the chemical that became Lyrica®, the most financially successful drug ever to have come from a US academic institution, can use some tips. Thanks to the generosity of the Kellogg School of Management’s Center for Research in Technology & Innovation, last month, Silverman and several other CLP faculty members had the opportunity to learn from three of the nation’s foremost business innovation experts as special invitees to the center’s Practical Innovator Program.

Developed by Kellogg and CRTI faculty members James Conley, Thomas D. Kuczmarski and Mohanbir Sawhney, the one-day course teaches the practical skills of innovation and what it takes to develop a new product and introduce it to the marketplace.  Created as an exclusive learning opportunity for the top 100 finalists of the Chicago Innovation Awards, the program (a $2,500 value) was opened up to CLP faculty members for the very first time this year.=

After CLP’s Biotech by the Lake investor conference last March, Conley and O’Halloran began strategizing ways to capitalize on the synergies between the Institute and the Kellogg center.  The conference highlighted the translational work of CLP faculty members and presentations by Oppenheimer & Co., AbbVie, Genentech, and other industry leaders.

“The discipline of scientists here at Northwestern and, in particular, CLP, is to explore a knowledge frontier. They are the generators of innovation, creating new possibilities,” says Conley. “Kellogg faculty, on the other hand, are the executors— we know how to organize, package, sell, leverage, negotiate, market, and finance new offerings. The key is bringing these two groups together to make them conversant; it is a knowledge sharing opportunity. Turning that into some kind of commercial engine for the city is what the Practical Innovator Program tries to lay out.”

Startup and Management Wisdom

For Silverman, who recently launched Akava Therapeutics to bring forward the ongoing work in his lab, the program offered some essential pointers.

“The Kellogg instructors talked about what your team should look like with regard to a CEO and CSO and board members that can also chip in some money and are not there just for advice,” said Silverman. “They have to have specific expertise that you would need at each stage along drug development. You really have to be strategic about their talents and how they can advance what you are trying to do.”

The Silverman startup will be developing a new therapy for hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer), and Silverman and collaborator Hande Özdinler are aiming to begin toxicology studies for a new ALS drug that has produced very promising in vitro and in vivo data. Silverman also is in earlier stage development for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and melanoma.

“The course covered a lot of topics about entrepreneurship that just aren’t covered in our typical training,” said CLP member Julius Lucks (Chemical and Biological Engineering) who also attended the program.  “This was very directly related to me as we just launched our first startup out of the lab.”

Lucks’ startup, Stemloop, develops biological sensors using cell-free synthetic biology that leverages the natural ability of microorganisms to sense and respond to their environment.

“Courses like these really help build and nurture an environment of innovation at Northwestern,” said Lucks.

What struck CLP member Evan Scott (biomedical engineering) were the many synergies between starting a new company and running a lab.

“For professors running research labs, the management of people, money and resources occupy more than 75 percent of our time, but we don’t receive any official training on these subjects,” said Scott.  “How do I pick a fundable topic for my next grant? How do I best allocate my time and those of my research team? How can I find the right people? What I learned from the Kellogg instructors was that it is essentially the same for starting a small company.”

Veteran entrepreneur Thomas O’Halloran and founding director of CLP, also attended the program. After starting several biotech companies, including Viamet, Tactic Pharma, LLC, and its spinout Monopar Therapeutics, O’Halloran, understood many of the hurdles pointed out by the instructors.

“There are common pitfalls whether the innovator is creating a new food, energy supply, or application for your cell phone,” said O’Halloran. “Our colleagues in Kellogg are spectacular at honing in on the key characteristics of the most successful startups and innovators.”

One of the Institute’s key functions, said O’Halloran, is working with faculty, postdocs and graduate students from the time of inception of an idea to putting together the information needed to seek and secure funding.

“We try to be matchmakers and bring in the financial experts, the CEO, and CSO, to help move people’s companies forward. A finely-tuned course like this that lowers the hurdles to translating discoveries into society is exactly the type of information that our people are hungry for,” says O’Halloran.

by Lisa La Vallee

Main image: Thomas O’Halloran, Founding Director of CLP, James Conley, Clinical Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship, and CLP faculty members Evan Scott, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Richard Silverman, Patrick G. Ryan/Aon Professor