Science & Research

U. research shapes science startups

The Science Coalition recognized four companies developing products based on Brown research

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Academics have escaped the ivory tower and are using research findings in attempts to better the world.

A recent report from the Science Coalition, an advocacy group of research universities including Brown, highlighted nearly 200 startup companies that were directly inspired by academic research. The report included four companies founded based on research done at Brown.

“Given the times, we are in for tight funding at the national level. We want to show Washington the bang for the buck they’re getting” from federally funded university research, said Tim Leshan, president of the Science Coalition.

To compile the list, member universities submitted the names of companies whose products stem directly from university research, Leshan said.


Research to drug development

Researchers often first seek to understand basic mechanisms in life sciences that do not have obvious  business implications. But discoveries can lead to commercial ventures, as was the case for Professor of Neuroscience Justin Fallon and former Professor of Neuroscience Mark Bear PhD’84, who is now a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fallon researches how muscular memory works through neural synapses. His work led to the discovery of a protein that could potentially serve as a treatment for Duchene’s muscular dystrophy, he said.

“It was a lot of basic science with an eye toward what we know about disease,” he said.

Once Fallon showed that the protein can be delivered throughout the body, it opened the door for the development of a commercial therapy.

Fallon co-founded Tivorsan Pharmaceuticals with John Nicholson ’72 and Joel Braunstein, and currently serves as its chief scientific advisor.

Bear’s story mirrors Fallon’s. He was investigating changes in neural synapses when his team discovered a mechanism  that might play a role in Fragile X syndrome. Fragile X is a leading cause of inherited mental disabilities, including autism, Bear said.

The discovery of the mechanism behind Fragile X enabled them to develop novel treatments for the disorder, he said.

Bear found an outside investor and an executive to co-found and run Seaside Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company of which he became the scientific advisor.

When professors commercialize their research, outside investors and executives are frequently brought in to run these startup companies.

“I have insights into how synapses work, but I have a lot to learn about drug development,” Bear said. “My full time job is a professor.”

Both companies are still testing their new drugs.

Though big pharmaceutical companies initially balked at Seaside Therapeutics’ approach to targeting Fragile X, the startup is now partnering with pharmaceutical giant Roche on the phase two clinical trials of a medication, Bear said.

Tivorsan is still waiting on approval from the Food and Drug Administration on their new drug before clinical trials, which they hope to begin next year, Fallon said.

Though Tivorsan plans to conduct its own clinical trials,,the company is also open to forming a partnership with a larger company, Fallon said.


Producing patents 

Professors’ academic pursuits can also catalyze business ventures through patenting new inventions.

The Technology Ventures Office handles patents produced by University researchers and works with startups, said Katherine Gordon, managing director of the office. In order to develop a product based on University research, a company must sign a licensing agreement with the office.

About one company per year is founded based on ideas or developments from Brown research, a number that does not include companies started by alums, she said.

After expenses, the inventor receives one-third of the royalties from a licensing agreement, according to the Brown University Patent and Invention Policy and Copyright Policy.

“I strongly believe that patenting is an important thing for the University to be pursuing,” said Harvey Silverman MS’68 PhD’71, professor of engineering. “In the long run, it can be a very good income stream for the University.”

Silverman developed microphone arrays — groups of microphones that record sound together — that were licensed by both Polycom, a large telecom company, to protect itself from a patent lawsuit brought by a competitor, and Acoustic Magic, a startup building the devices. Though Silverman has no involvement in Acoustic Magic, the company, which is currently producing and selling microphone arrays, was included on Science Coalition’s list.


‘Unpleasant disputes’

Nabsys, a company developing DNA sequencing technology, claimed the final spot on Science Coalition’s list of Brown-based companies. The company has currently raised $41 million on venture capital, including $20 million this year — but not without ruffling a few feathers.

Two different research projects led by University faculty merged to form Nabsys, which is based in the Jewelry District.

Professor of Physics Xinsheng Sean Ling developed a better method of DNA sequencing, using an electrical current to force DNA through a small hole called a nanopore to “proofread” it, he said. “I think it’s possible to sequence DNA using physics alone,”  Ling added.

Ling founded Nabsys to commercialize the technology with his former student Barrett Bready ’99 MD ’03, who serves as the company’s president and CEO.

In 2004, Nabsys merged with GeneSpectrum, another DNA sequencing company founded on University research. GeneSpectrum commercialized algorithms to compile DNA sequencing data developed by Professors of Computer Science Eli Upfal and Franco Preparata and former Assistant Professor of Chemistry John Oliver, Bready said.

Sequencing techniques employed by other companies were like mapping a city based on Facebook photos, Bready said, while Nabsys’ approach to sequencing was comparable to a satellite map with a big picture view.

Nabsys has yet to commercialize its technology, but Upfal said the company has developed prototypes. Startups begin with a certain idea that changes over time, Upfal said. “Where we are is far from where we started.”

Oliver left academia to work as Nabsys’ vice president of research and development, Bready said. Preparato and Upfal serve as scientific advisers.

After serving as chairman and scientific advisor of Nabsys, Ling was pushed out of the company, he said.

Ling said he wanted the company to implement a physics-based approach instead of a computer science-based approach to sequencing.

“I was not pleased. We had some unpleasant disputes,” he said.

Ling has since applied for patents for what he says is an improved version of the sequencing technology and has spoken with Illumina, a large sequencing company, about licensing his patent.

“There are a lot of things going on when you take something out of academia and put it in a for-profit company,” Bready said. “There are four Brown professors who were involved and three who are still involved.”

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