Our Translational Mission
or, what is it you say you do here?
Many great scientific discoveries at top hospitals and universities go undeveloped for months — or even years.
Scientific breakthroughs at these research institutes have become so frequent that the administrative “tech transfer” offices that manage the resulting intellectual property are overwhelmed by the rate of innovation.
As a result, new technologies that could change industries or save lives are delayed. We founded General Biotechnologies to augment the tech transfer system by finding and developing great projects that are backlogged in tech transfer portfolios.
Our first attempt — Nivien Therapeutics — began last year as an unpublished manuscript at Harvard Medical School. Now, it’s a venture-backed oncology startup with positive animal data in pancreatic cancer.
The Era of Tech Transfer
For most of the 20th century, the US government owned IP generated by federally-funded research. In a national initiative to incentivize innovation, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 granted research institutions the commercial rights to discoveries made in their labs.
After the Bayh-Dole Act, hospitals and universities established tech transfer offices, which work with IP attorneys to patent discoveries by students and faculty. Entrepreneurs and corporations license IP from the tech transfer offices in return for royalties, patent maintenance fees, an upfront payment, or equity if the licensee is a startup.
This system is responsible for many technological breakthroughs in the US over the past forty years, especially in biopharma. Remicade — a rheumatoid arthritis drug that drives billions of dollars in annual revenue for Johnson & Johnson — was licensed from the tech transfer office at NYU, which scored hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties once Remicade hit the market.
However, at many research institutes, the tech transfer process is not functioning as well as it could.
Tech transfer budgets are tight, entrepreneurial and scientific talent is poached by the same companies that license the technologies, and the growing rate of innovation in key fields like biology has outstripped the capacity of most tech transfer offices to support every new project.
Even at MIT, which is known to have a good tech transfer office, we saw this bottleneck firsthand, with a half-dozen tech transfer officers handling a couple thousand technologies — most invented within the past 3 years.
Our mission is to accelerate the translation of promising scientific projects into applied technologies.
We start by screening tech transfer portfolios for projects with the right combination of technical feasibility and commercial viability. We tap a diverse network of academic and industrial experts to test our assumptions and run proof-of-concept experiments with contract research organizations.
For the winners, we license the rights to the patents from the tech transfer offices at the research institutes that own the IP. Then we seek sector-specific investment and recruit specialized teams to develop each proprietary program. As I write this, my co-founder is finalizing candidates for our Chief Scientific Officer of Nivien Therapeutics.
Diamonds in the Rough
Many projects in tech transfer portfolios lack a champion because academic inventors rarely commercialize their discoveries. This was originally the case with Nivien Therapeutics.
Marc Kirschner, our scientific partner at Harvard Medical School, is the Chair of the Department of Systems Biology and the Principal Investigator of the Kirschner Lab. Therefore, like most academic scientists, he’s more focused on the pursuit of knowledge — and the grants and publications that support that endeavor — than on company-building.
So rather than found his own startup, he became the Chair of our Scientific Advisory Board. He’s well-suited for the position, as he previously served on the SAB of Genentech — followed by Novartis.
Without sufficient support from the tech transfer office, a project that lacks a champion will often sit in the portfolio until it is publicized. This is either 18 months after the patent is filed — at which point the US Patent & Trademark Office posts the patent on its website — or until the accompanying scientific paper is published. The latter can take anywhere from a couple months to a couple years after an inventor reports her discovery to the tech transfer office.
Once published, many potential third parties try to snap up exciting projects. Before that, it has traditionally been difficult and time-intensive to source great projects at scale. It requires a good relationship with each tech transfer office, a non-disclosure agreement, and the ability to tap a broad knowledge base and specialized tools to find and evaluate each unique technology.
If you’re interested in our systematic search protocol and how it makes our methodology better than past attempts to find valuable projects before publication, feel free to get in touch. This is the core of our business and we are always interested in exploring new routes to optimization and hearing fresh perspectives on how we can improve.
The Future of General Biotechnologies
We will source more opportunities like Nivien, develop them, and in doing so accelerate the rate at which biology becomes biotechnology.
Many of these projects are too important to be left on the shelf. We’re evaluating additional programs ranging from a narcotics detection tool to thermotolerant enzymes for industrial manufacturing. We find other intriguing opportunities every week, which I’ll write about in future posts.
Email me if you’d like to talk about working together — especially if you’re a scientist with a cool invention pending in your tech transfer office.
This post is part of a series of short essays about student entrepreneurship, VC, and translating scientific research into applied technologies. If you enjoyed reading this post check out the others below and feel free to get in touch!
Update: Nivien closed after 2 years. Read our story in The Washington Post.